Aftermath: Drive-By Truckers' Cathartic, Down-Home Halloween Redemption at House of Blues
Photos by Jay Lee
It took Aftermath most of Friday to figure out why we were in such an awful blue funk after Thursday's Pogues show, especially after the band delivered a more brilliant set than even this 20-year fan thought they were capable of. But after leaving work early and relaxing for a while at home in the fetal position, we knew. Some shows - particularly ones we've waited more than half a lifetime to see - we'd rather just be a face in the crowd, soaking up the music and the booze like everyone else instead of having to worry about arranging guest lists and photo passes, not to mention not getting so blasted we can't piece together a review the next day. Well, sometimes the musical gods are as kind as they are crazy, because that's exactly what we got almost exactly 24 hours later in the very same space. Like the Pogues, Aftermath is so familiar with the Drive-By Truckers' catalog all we really need to do is write down the song titles; unlike the Pogues, we have seen nearly every DBT date in Houston or Austin for a solid decade, so at this point seeing them live is like keeping a standing date once or (if we're lucky) twice a year with an old, dear friend.
It didn't hurt that the first song we caught Friday - we were a little late, so we're just going to assume we missed recent Sirius/XM hit single "George Jones Talkin' Cell Phone Blues," the lead track from the Truckers' New West odds-n-sods swan song The Fine Print - was perhaps our favorite Truckers song, 2004's "Carl Perkins' Cadillac." To us, DBT co-frontman Mike Cooley's countrified tribute to late Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who "never blew enough hot air to need a little gold-plated paperweight," was always more about his band than Phillips or his "Million Dollar Quartet" of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Truckers never blew enough hot air, and we doubt they ever will, that they're ever going to be able to play places much bigger than House of Blues. Judging by the modest turnout - there were probably more people at the Houston Press' Halloween party next door, which spilled over into HOB's equally packed Foundation Room - the next time Houston sees them may be back at Meridian or the scenario we'd much prefer, back-to-back nights at the Continental Club. As long as someone meets the guarantee, Aftermath suspects they don't much care where they play.
Shonna Tucker and Mike Cooley
Safely hidden behind our hastily thrown-together cowboy Pumpkinhead "costume," Aftermath arched our shoulders a couple of times, relaxed and let the Truckers' keen-witted three-guitar Southern rock wash over us like the waters of the TVA-dammed Tennessee River outside the band's spiritual hometown of Muscle Shoals, Ala. The ominous tones of "Tornadoes" sucked the air out of the room for barnstorming Decoration Day whirlwind "Marry Me," Fine Print growler "Play It All Night Long" bared the fangs that sank in with Dirty South backwoods-Gothic riff machine "Where The Devil Don't Stay," establishing a pattern of push and pull, tension and release the Truckers perfected long ago and that lasted, well, all night long. We got a pair of songs written more than half a decade apart - "Self-Destructive Zones," from last year's Brighter Than Creation's Dark, and "Women Without Whiskey," from 2001's Southern Rock Opera - that reminded Aftermath that, although the bearlike Patterson Hood may be the Truckers' musclebound heart, the lanky, clean-shaven Cooley is the keeper of the band's melancholy soul. "It's easier to let it all die a fairy tale than admit something bigger's coming through," he sang on the former, "take me piece by piece until there ain't nothing left to take away from me" on the latter. It weren't no fairy tale. All night, all six Truckers on stage kept giving piece after piece - they may have had nothing left afterward except an empty bottle of Jack Daniels on bassist Shonna Tucker's amplifier, but we all took plenty away.
We also got our fill of the skull-crushing guitar jams that are, perversely, the Truckers' way of lightening up, stretching all the way back to the band's first album with "Steve McQueen." Friday's version of Hood's tribute to his childhood cinematic idol was perhaps the Truckers' most foot-stomping, shoot-out-the-lights performance of the song we've ever seen. Not far behind were Hood's seething "Hell No I Ain't Happy" and sprawling closer "Lookout Mountain," but the song that brought Aftermath all the way back from our post-Pogues depression was the duo's jet-fueled Southern Rock Opera climax, "Get Your Ass on the Plane." "When it's your time to go, ain't no good way to go about it," Hood and Cooley shouted in unison as the Truckers screamed like a 747 behind and beside them. "Ain't no use in thinking about it, you'll just drive yourself insane." When it's Aftermath's time to go, however we go about it, a song like "Plane" will be what sends us on our way. Like the men sang, "Dead is dead, and it ain't no different than walking around if you ain't living." We've been there, as recently as a few short hours before the Truckers went onstage Friday, but don't reckon we'll be going back anytime soon.
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