If you’re not familiar with America’s primo roots/alt country band, the Drive-By Truckers, with apologies to the Paul Thorn Band, these guys are up there with Little Feat in Lowell George’s pomp. Led by the greatest Southern-fried front men in the business, songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, a wickedly gutbucket rhythm section in bassist Matty Patton and drummer Brad Morgan, along with the ultra-eclectic keyboard and guitar wiz Jay Gonzalez, these guys have got skills.
Believe me, driving the 140 miles straight down I-55 from Chi-Town through the cornfields and silos to Urbana was a yawn save for the jangly brilliance of their brand-new album English Oceans coming out of the speakers. Having not seen the lads for a couple of years, I was anxious with anticipation.
10pm. Out go the lights! And Mike Cooley fires off the first salvo with ‘Birthday Boy,’ followed by Hood warbling the witty ‘Girls Who Smoke’ off. Cooley and Hood take turns. If they had still looked a little insecure about the loss of Jason Isbell the last time I saw them, there was no such problem this time. Their deft gift of laying down a Nottingham-lace-like guitar backdrop weaved in behind ‘Pauline Hawkins’ is followed by the pretty ‘Natural Light’ and ’First Air of Autumn.’ The spectacular, ‘When He’s Gone’ carries Cooley’s signature tribute to Neil Young’s open-tuned noodling. Is the band having a good time? You bet!
That Youngian strain of ragged glory contradicts the sometime three-guitar-jangle-jangle of their country side. And there’s the more raw-meat country-punk side of their stuff. ‘The Night G.G. Allin Came To Town’ is a killer. An even more intense reading of ‘Sink Hole’, a raging romp concerning a dead-broke fretful, farmer giving his bank manager some bloody cracker payback, makes for a fine old Dixie morality tale. By this time, the band had the crowd at this fading seventies dance club absolutely eating out of their hand. ‘Dead Drunk and Naked’ got the prerequisite amount of hooting and hollering and the cataclysmic riffs that set up ‘Lookout Mountain’ and the sweet romantic energy of ‘Space City’ helped ease the crowd down.
As much as Patterson Hood is the consummate showman, Cooley is definitely his aw-shucks Little Jimmy Osmondesque partner. No road band I can think of right now can keep it so metronomically simple while, simultaneously, delighting in the pure gospel-like joy of the opaque feel they create than the Drive-Bye Truckers. Like a high school teacher/bandleader, Jay Gonzalez often calls out the synchronizing counts and barks out song choices; he often swaps positioning between the keyboards and guitar, sometimes during the same song.
The superlative ‘Shit Shots Count’ and a hilarious ‘Hell No I Ain’t Happy’ temporarily shut down proceedings, but the throbbing, packed house was never going to settle for less than an encore. Really ratcheted up now, the DBTs slowly took us higher. ‘Women Without Whiskey’, ‘Where The Devil Don’t Stay,’ Hood’s farewell to his movie dude ‘Steve McQueen’, and, finally the band’s tribute to their “ultimate roadie,” the late Craig Lieske, before the big finish. It’s a very grand farewell to Lieske on ‘Grand Canyon,’ and the band leaves the stage, one member after another, leaving their instruments on stage until only Brad Morgan is left under the lights, pounding out on the tom-toms through feedback before he too exits.
The boys have a fine, well put together website and are not even slightly aloof with their fans.