Drive-By Truckers House of Blues September 23, 2010
To be considered "great," a rock group needs to occasionally (at least) spread itself beyond the confines of songs about chasing girls/ditching school to touch on more universal themes. Some acts come to this realization early on (Bruce, U2), others...a little longer (The Replacements, The Ramones).
Drive-By Truckers, now in their 14th year of existence and widely regarded as one of the greatest rock bands in the world, are firmly in the former category.
But where Springsteen's songs are all about yearning and seizing that single speck of hope in an otherwise dead-end life - some guys may die "piece by piece," but there are others who spend their evenings racing in the streets - the Truckers present no such silver lining. Their songs offer either plaintive resignation of working in the Walmart after your wife dies of cancer ("Puttin' People On The Moon") or proud belligerence of yeah, my brother got picked up for drug trafficking, but they couldn't make the charges stick ("Never Gonna Change").
At their best, DBTs are the raspy voices of the Recession Generation.
Their latest album, The Big To-Do, has taken some lumps for maybe finding the band trying too hard to be "accessible." True, Aftermath is not as big a fan of it as some of the earlier stuff, but the classic Truckers themes are there. Just listen to "This Fucking Job" or "Get Downtown."
But as any DBT fan knows, the albums are merely the antipasto to the live shows' main course; dripping two-plus hour slabs of rock, country and R&B driven by the triple-guitar attack of Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and John Neff. The band served all this and more to the House of Blues Thursday night. And while the crowd (which was rather sparse to begin with) dwindled as the show went on, the Truckers cranked up the intensity almost in defiance of the fact.
The band took the stage at 10:15 p.m. to the recorded strains of their single "Your Woman Is A Livin' Thing," and opened with "Bulldozers and Dirt," a quieter selection from Pizza Deliverance. But just in case anyone was doubting this was, in fact, to be a ROCK SHOW, they jumped into the live standard "A Ghost to Most" and "Santa Fe" from the latest album.
Whether or not switching to some heavier numbers early on was a premeditated decision or one prompted by typical Houston audience douchebaggery, we can't say. Their fifth song, the haunting "The Deeper In," was essentially ruined by the crowd's animated conversations covering such intriguing topics as who was getting the next round and how much they hated their jobs.
Huh, drinking problems and career malaise. Maybe these assholes should have been paying more attention to the music.
"Sink Hole," in spirit a sinister response to John Mellencamp's "Rain On the Scarecrow," and "Uncle Frank" set a familiar theme for the rest of the night: Desperation. Thursday night's set consisted almost entirely of songs for the economically and emotionally disenfranchised (an exception being "Life in the Factory," dedicated to the late Coach Leonard Skinner).
The band played surprisingly little of their latest album, perhaps realizing that older cuts like "Hell No I Ain't Happy" and "Gravity's Gone" still resonate with us. Maybe even moreso lately.
Which isn't to lump DBTs into the unpleasant Tea Party phenomenon. Having grown up in the rural South, the band knows poverty isn't tied to any particular administration's policies. As the song says, "And all the politicians/They're all lyin' sacks of shit."
"Gravity's Gone" also highlights something we've known for a long time, that Cooley is the closest thing the band's ever had to a traditional country rock vocalist. Hood's range goes from a pleading falsetto to jagged howl, while bassist/vocalist Shonna Tucker has contributed more of her old school twang in recent years, but her lone effort at last night's show ("It's Gonna Be (I Told You So)") felt rushed and uncomfortable.
The witching hour for weeknight Houston audiences is around 11:15 p.m., and easily a third of the crowd filtered away before the close of the set. Their loss, for not only did they miss the staggering one-two punch of "When The Pin Hits the Shell" and "Puttin' People on the Moon" - Hood's most scathing song to date...he spit on the stage every time the song referred to the space program - but an encore that consisted of "Used To Be A Cop," a promising as-yet-unreleased track from their upcoming "R&B murder ballads" album, and "Let There Be Rock," from the epic Southern Rock Opera, ending the night on a hesitant optimistic note.
A few weak moments aside, it was a powerful show. The reliance on older cuts (three-fourths of the show was pre-2008) gives one pause, however. Here's hoping the upcoming albums given the band more live ammunition.
Although if they just wanted to play Decoration Day wire to wire, we'd be fine with that, too.
Personal Bias: While Brighter Than Creation's Dark was a solid effort and The Big To-Do has its moments, Aftermath is a big fan of the Jason Isbell era, and believe both he and the DBTs haven't been as good since they parted ways.
The Crowd; Equal parts mildly intoxicated yuppies, who bailed about halfway through, and big bearded Drive-hards, who crowded the stage in front of Hood for most of the night.
Overheard in the Crowd: This doesn't really count, but we must have looked like we really needed a drink, because three separate waitresses came up to us and asked if we needed another beer. None approached our friend.
Random Notebook Dump: "I'm pretty sure I just saw Caleb Followill."
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Your Woman Is A Livin' Thing (recorded intro) Bulldozers and Dirt A Ghost to Most Santa Fe Women Without Whiskey The Deeper In Sinkhole Uncle Frank Life in the Factory Get Downtown It's Gonna Be (I Told You So) Birthday Boy Daddy Learned to Fly Three Dimes Down Hell No, I Ain't Happy Gravity's Gone Plastic Flowers on the Highway When the Pin Hits the Shell Puttin' People on the Moon
Zip City Used To Be A Cop Let There Be Rock