Review (sort of): Drive-By Truckers in Lexington
This, then, is what it has all added up to: all the van tours, the press notices, whatever imaging money previous labels spent or did not spend. All the work, all the grind, all the heartbreak. It adds up to a big rock show with a big rock audience in a big rock club.
Not what I was expecting.
The Drive-By Truckers (and Langhorn Slim) were booked into a new Lexington, KY venue called Buster’s Billiards & Backroom, a converted warehouse in what appears to be an emerging nightclub district that I didn’t now existed because I live an hour-plus out of Lexington. And, anyway, I don’t dance, nor prance around in skimpy clothing. The road to the club was blocked off for resurfacing or something, and there seemed some kind of bacchanal going on throughout the district (the kind of thing, as I overheard walking, at which one expects to be hit upon by both sexes) that may or may not have been related to horse-racing season at Keeneland. Or maybe spring break. Or all of those things.
The Billiards component amounts to a half-dozen small tables packed together close enough that playing serious pool would be a challenge (but the tables are small enough that serious pool players wouldn’t) in the front of the building. In back is a huge open room that holds something like a thousand people. Most of them my age, or older, wearing classic rock t-shirts (Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, one very cool Built To Spill shirt I hadn’t seen before), and hoisting large cans of PBR, which is apparently the hipster brew of choice this season.
It has been at least six months since I went to a show that didn’t involve students playing at the off-campus coffeeshop I theoretically manage. I keep the hours of a parent, and it’s farm season. One never knows with an unfamiliar venue when show times really will be, but Langhorn Slim apparently went on at nine, as advertised, and was finished before 10. Which, standing on a cement floor surrounded by strangers, was a good thing.
(Used to be, I’d go to a show and know much of the audience. In Lexington, I am a stranger, and in the absence of babysitting, I travel alone. This, and an hour-plus drive, puts me in a solitary headspace…or something. Used to be I went alone because nobody else wanted to see what I wanted to see.)
I had to talk myself into going, repeatedly. It’s a long drive. It had been a long day. I’m not in this business anymore, not really.
And then the Truckers came on stage, pretty much on time and before my back had given out. Slashing out “Drag The Lake Charlie” cool and clear and well-scrubbed like they were being taken care of and taking care of themselves. The big rock sound. Three guitars, no waiting. (I’ve used that line somewhere before. I am, this morning, on the first cup of coffee, reduced to stealing from myself, and footnoting.) Patterson Hood’s keening voice rising up over the top of everything else, hacking at his guitar. The whole thing approachable, just close enough to what any garage band might pull off, except nobody else can write those words and see that clear. Except it’s harder than it looks.
Waiting for the band, I listened half-heartedly around me. “They used to play three-hour sets,” the guys standing behind me said to each other. “In fact, I left one night before they were done. I don’t know how long they’ll play tonight.”
The place was sold out.
Sold out because they played those three-hour sets, because they made those records, maybe because they rose to the top of critics’ lists so often that enough people got curious. Sold out in Lexington, which, in my limited experience, is not an enormously supportive community.
This is what success looks like for a modern rock band. They have a huge, well-organized merch table.
The music. I’m meant to talk about the music. I went to get lost in the music, not so much to attend to it. Intermittently that worked. They played, for as long as my back held out, principally from their new album, The Big To-Do, rotating between Patterson and Cooley’s songs, dropping Shonna Tucker’s compositions in, all at a steady chug with barely time for applause. I couldn’t hear Shonna’s vocals on “You Got Another,” which is a pity, but I’m not sure that one fits the big rock show. I left after “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So,” because it’s a long drive home and I don’t see all that well at night, especially when I’m half-asleep.
None of that is criticism. The Truckers have become, of course, a formidable rock band. I could wish for cleaner mixing and a better house sound system, but I always wish for that. And wish I’d plumped for the expensive ear plugs back when I had the money and the need, but I didn’t and that’s life.
The point I wanted to make, though, was not so much to remind the converted that the Truckers are a great rock band, because we here all know that. The point I wanted to make wasn’t even that they’ve finally hit an audience large enough to pay for their children. The point I wanted to make was how old the room was.
The blues are said to be dying, or were the last time I was in a room where such things were spoken of. The blues are said to be dying because the audience is growing older and older, and because the audience is no longer made up of the African-American community from which the blues sprung.
It is not clear to me what it means that the audience for the Drive-By Truckers seemed older than I am. It may only mean that I turn 51 in a few days, and wonder at the foolishness of my youth on such occasions. That I refuse to admit my age. That I wonder about how I spent all those years chasing my own curious dreams about music, and how it ended. But outside of my own head, I wonder if rock has lost the capacity to move a youth audience. If I was too right that rock would age and sing songs about middle age, and beyond, though really — a decade back, anyhow — I thought it would be a more countrified rock than the Truckers offer up. (And it probably is, mostly. Maybe not. What do I know about the world now?)
Which isn’t to say that we greybeards shouldn’t rock. But, just…I’m not sure how many kids dream of becoming guitar heroes anymore. (And for a big rock show, I didn’t smell a whiff of pot in the air.) The future was once predictably like the present. Now it makes no sense. Maybe that’s the same as it ever was and I just noticed. That wouldn’t surprise me.