Review: The Drive-By Truckers at the House of Blues

The Drive-By Truckers (l to r): Patterson Hood, Brad Morgan, Mike Cooley, Matt Patton (not pictured: Jay Gonzalez)
The Drive-By Truckers (l to r): Patterson Hood, Brad Morgan, Mike Cooley, Matt Patton (not pictured: Jay Gonzalez) Photo by Violeta Alvarez
In their repertoire, southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers have songs about all sorts of natural disasters: floods, tornadoes, sinkholes, thunderstorms, bachelor parties. Co-founding singer/guitarist Patterson Hood has also covered heat lightning in the distance with his solo work. Mostly, they portend danger and/or death to the people living inside those tunes.

So, it made for a bit of a perilous meteorological parallel when the band’s Houston stop on their Southern Rock Opera Revisited 2024 Tour came with especially shitty weather.

“Is that Tropical Storm warning still in effect? Fuck your Tropical Storm!” founder singer/guitarist Patterson Hood mock-raged against the dying footlights. “But thank you for coming out in this tonight. It’s been crazy to think it’s been 23 years since we put this damn thing out!”
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Drive-By Truckers founding singer/guitarist Patterson Hood
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
For this tour, the Truckers had promised to play all (well…most of) their 2001 concept record magnum opus Southern Rock Opera in full in the first set, followed by a second helping of “hits,” deep cuts, and covers.

But, as befitting a band that never writes out a set list before a show (though has mostly hewed to a firm one this tour), the Truckers changed their mind. They instead barnstormed through a single-set of 25 songs and interludes all at once.

Hood and co-founding singer/guitarist Mike Cooley gave the Houston Press the dirty, dirty lowdown on the album, tour, and new box set in a rare dual interview a couple of weeks back.

Of the Southern Rock Opera tracks last night, standouts from Cooley included a lolling “72 (This Highway’s Mean),” frenetic “Guitar Man Upstairs” and fan-favorite/candidate for one of their most-played tunes “Women Without Whiskey.”
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Drive-By Trucker founding singer/guitarist Mike Cooley
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
His deadpan, almost flat-toned vocalizing, as usual, perfectly fits his lyrics and imperfect characters. He even brought out (briefly) an acoustic guitar custom-made with one of the late Wes Freed’s (the go-to artist for DBT covers and booklets) signature evil-looking long-necked black birds surrounding the hole. With an actual red light shining where its eye was.

Of course, Trucker superfans (known as “Heathens”) know those avian wonders are known as “Cooley Birds” in tribute to Mr. Mike (aka to said Heathens, “The Stroker Ace”).

Hood’s more raspy, throaty tones brought the fire and brimstone. His better contributions included a raw, impassioned “The Southern Thing.” Which, as he explained, the band has mostly stayed away from playing for two decades due to it being misconstrued by redneck racists and yahoos as a call to arms. Just as uber patriots cottoned (also incorrectly) to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

The lyrics are right there, people.
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Drummer Brad Morgan
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
And “Let There Be Rock”—one of the most joyous rock and roll songs about rock and roll put to record—was clearly an audience favorite as Hood recounted various bands he’d seen in his youth from Blue Öyster Cult and Molly Hatchet to AC/DC and (not on the studio version) fellow Georgians R.E.M. “about 20 times.”

The SRO songs also weighed heavily toward the end with Cooley and Hood tag-teaming the troika of urgent “Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” hopeful-turned-tragic “Greenville to Baton Rouge” and the eerie, doom-laden “Angels and Fuselage.”

Hood mentioned that when he wrote it, he tried to put himself on that Lynyrd Skynyrd plane as it slowly descended into certain, quiet, and painful death.

As surviving Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle told the Houston Press in 2020: “It was dead silence; everybody was holding their breath. When we first went into the trees, it was just a brushing sound, the soft parts of the tops. But when we started lowering more, that’s when it sounded like a thousand baseball bats beating the fuselage. It was horrendous.”
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Guitarist/Keyboardist Jay Gonzalez
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Cooley took the lion’s share of the non-SRO material. Though several of his songs, based in historical fact or imagery, fit right into both the theme of the album and contemporary issues.

They included the Border (“Ramon Casiano”), the still-simmering Civil War (“Surrender Under Protest”) and one tune he’s said previously was inspired by a ‘70s visit of Jimmy Carter to his hometown that also brought out the Ku Klux Klan (“Made Up English Oceans”).

Those first two were uptempo, high-energy jaunts. But for me, 2014’s English Oceans album (and its tracks) is the sole studio effort in the entire discography of the Drive-By Truckers whose appeal just…escapes me.

This tour does see a debut with “Mystery Song,” an old jam that’s included on the Southern Rock Opera deluxe box set, but whose lyrics in 2024 are always evolving. So much that Hood taped this latest version to his microphone stand to read off of.
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Bassist Matt Patton
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
As for the rhythm section, the Always Grimacing veteran drummer Brad “The EZB” Morgan and the Always Smiling bassist Matt “Bobby Matt” Patton were the literal tires that ground the show in a solid foundation. And while Jay Gonzalez added organ and keyboard flourishes, he was the Band’s Secret Weapon as the third axeman in the very Southern Rockish “Three Guitar Army,” taking many of the more stinging solos.

Just past the two-hour mark, the Truckers turned the mood of “Angels and Fuselage” totally around with a surefire feel-good song. One that was a hit for a Southern Rock band that Hood said “people kind of forget.”

And with that, the evening’s proceedings closed with a tune from 1974 that he said they often played in the early days, Wet Willie’s “Keep on Smilin’.” Leaving Heathens and non-Heathens alike doing just that. As they strode out into the still rainy and misty downtown Houston night.
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Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, and Mike Cooley on the DBT front line
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Unexpected Houston Press Nod
While introducing “Life in the Factory,” Hood reminisced about the band’s early years playing Houston. Usually “Upstairs at Rudyard’s to very few people.” But he said they got their first positive local press notices in the ‘90s from none other than the Houston Press’s own John Lomax, who died last year. “He was a great writer and he was royalty, but he didn’t act like it. I miss him,” Hood told the audience.

He also recalled how Lomax had taken him to eat “the best tacos he ever had,” but for the life of him could not recall the name of Mexican restaurant. “I’ve been thinking about it all day but can’t remember,” he noted. “It was a taco place across from a pizza place!”

Houston is gonna…Houston
What drives local audiences to pay good money to attend concerts—and then proceed to jabber and gab to friends during the show—is one of the city’s most enduring and frustrating music mysteries. Several portions of Southern Rock Opera include spoken word interludes, and Hood sometimes introduces songs with recollections and memories. But people wouldn’t shut the hell up, and Hood called it out several times.

While introducing the real-life historical people mentioned in “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” Hood suddenly stopped at the mic. “If you’re gonna talk, then I’ll just play guitar. Or go to the next song.”

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New DBT fan Angel Garza
Phobo by Bob Ruggiero
Behind the Music
Hood said that the story behind the song “Road Cases” stems from his often-dead end searches for guitars in mid-‘90s Atlanta music stores. Though he was always able to find many used road cases with “ARS” stenciled on them. Marking them as former property of members of the Atlanta Rhythm Section.

“These guys were huge, sold millions of records and sold-out stadiums,” Hood offered. “But fame is fleeting. And when it goes, and you’ve gotta sell things. First to go are the road cases. Then the instruments in them.”

New Fan Corner
Finally, standing next to me (and sporting a very hip Velvet Underground T-shirt) was 27-year-old Angel Garza. He’d driven in from New Caney to attend his first Drive-By Truckers show.

When asked what brought him there, he said he’d seen Southern Rock Opera included on a list of “100 Albums You Should Listen to Before You Die” (his favorite song: “Guitar Man Upstairs”). Loving it, he then explored some of their other records, including 2016’s American Band. Bonus points to him for IDing songs by X-Ray Spex and the New York Dolls during the Truckers' pre-show playlist tape.

“I feel like this will be a good experience!” he said before the show started. “They’re like Americana. I like the way their music has roots and their lyrics.” Judging by how Garza reacted to the show, we could indeed have a Future Heathen on our hands.

Set List
Days of Graduation
Ronnie and Neil
72 (This Highway's Mean)
Dead, Drunk, and Naked
Guitar Man Upstairs
Ramon Casiano
The Three Great Alabama Icons
The Southern Thing
Surrender Under Protest
Made Up English Oceans
Plastic Flowers on the Highway
Primer Coat
Mystery Song
Zip City
Let There Be Rock
Every Single Storied Flameout
Road Cases
Women Without Whiskey
Life in the Factory
Shut Up and Get on the Plane
Greenville to Baton Rouge
Angels and Fuselage
Keep On Smilin'
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero