Last Night: The Drive-By Truckers at the Heights Theater

The Drive-By Truckers: Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Matt Patton. Brad Morgan is hidden behind Cooley.
The Drive-By Truckers: Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Matt Patton. Brad Morgan is hidden behind Cooley. Photo by Bob Ruggiero
An Evening with the Drive-By Truckers
November 14, 2019
Heights Theater

As Matthew Keever pointed out in his review of the recent Black Keys show, a good chunk of the near capacity audience at the cavernous Toyota Center likely was familiar with just the band’s radio (er…streaming) hits.

The complete opposite was in effect on Thursday evening. Not just because the Drive-By Truckers haven’t really chalked up what passes for a “hit” in over 23 years  of existence and 11 studio albums.But that the majority of those in the sold-out, far more intimate Heights Theater seemed to be there because they were well-versed in the band’s entire output.

Hardcore fan Frank Steininger and was there with his wife, son, and son’s girlfriend, sitting in the balcony – a concession he made for them. “I usually come early to be right down by the stage. I just saw them in Atlanta,” he says. Steininger – who is most partial to the Southern Rock Opera record - has seen the band at least 20 times, as well as solo shows by co-founding singer/guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. He’ll also be in the Truckers’ hometown of Athens, Georgia next year for the band’s annual Heathens Homecoming string of shows.

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Hood (left) and Cooley (right) c-founded the band, while Morgan is a longtime member.
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Scott Fuchs was up from his seat in exuberance many times throughout the show, and has caught the Truckers live ten times. He favors Decoration Day as his DBT Desert Island Disc. Fuchs' first exposure to the band was with the record The Dirty South, which he listened to in his truck driving cross country from California to visit a girl he fell in love with in Arkansas. His romance with the band outlasted that with the girl, and he proudly showed a photo of him and Hood from a previous show on his cell phone, along with a text he saved from musician.

“The thing about DBT is that they changed everything for me,” he says. “Everything I’ve listened to since has been altered by them for me. They’ve got two different great songwriters with real lyricism. And they took the Southern Rock thing forward.”

And indeed. In a career-spanning 27-song set lasting 2 hours and 15 minutes, the band – Hood, Cooley, longtime drummer Brad “The EZB” Morgan, and newer members Jay Gonzalez (guitar/keyboards) and Matt Patton (bass) played such a smoldering set that the Fire Marshal should have been on site.

The Truckers front men are also a study in contrasts. Hood is joyously in the moment striking rock star moves and emoting like a Pentecostal preacher while waving his arms. Cooley is far more laid back, but stoic and serious practitioner of his songs. And both excel in character studies and short stories in their writing. The set list was something of a tennis match as they pinged back and forth between the two.

Opening with Cooley’s “Birthday Boy” – sung from the perspective of a stripper who has worked too many all-male celebrations – highlights from his pen included “Marry Me,” “Women Without Whiskey,” and “One of These Days.” Hood’s power tunes included “ “Goode’s Field Road,” “Ronnie and Neil” (his tribute to Mssrs. Van Zandt and Young ), and the epic “A World of Hurt” – possibly the night’s best song with words sung and spoken, leading into a ferocious crescendo of guitar noise.

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Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Three songs from the band’s upcoming album were played: “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun,” “Slow Ride Argument,” and “Armageddon’s Back in Town” – the last getting its official live debut in Houston. Hood talked about the record in a recent interview with the Houston Press.

It did seem odd that they weren’t dipping into any of the material off American Band, their most recent album and the one that touches most on political and social issues. But it turns out they were saving all of that firepower for the big finale.

In Hood’s most extensive comments to the audience, he reminisced about early trips to Houston playing upstairs at Rudyard’s and how the band couldn’t have survived without a fan named Anna, who would let them crash at her house instead of sleeping inside their van and even feed them.

That led Hood to say how much he values the people he’s met around the country over the years who have become friends and acquaintances. That includes one man who texted him and mentioned that his daughter is a student at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California. And that one of her friends was shot in the latest school shooting just earlier in the day.

“I have a daughter who’s going to be 15, so this hits home for me,” Hood bellowed with real anger. “It ain’t political, it’s fucking personal! And we’ve done nothing about it!”

Then he launched into “Thoughts and Prayers,” a viperish song with school shooting-themed lyrics. It was another new piece that debuted recently during a Hood/Cooley duo show billed as “The Dimmer Twins” (their piss-take on the well-worn Mick Jagger/Keith Richards “Glimmer Twins” moniker).

That led directly to three American Band tracks on the themes of immigration, migrant deaths, dark political times, Civil War regret, and misplaced patriotism. And to jam it home, an unexpected cover of the Ramones “The KKK Took My Baby Away” – even though singer Joey Ramone’s lament was originally written as a jab at his ferociously right-wing guitarist Johnny Ramone, who did indeed "steal" Joey’s girlfriend Linda in real life.

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Photo by Bob Ruggiero
The audience’s fervor seemed to crest, and by set closer “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” it was a mass exorcism with plenty of air punches and loud bellows of the title in the chorus.

The Drive-By Truckers may not play to audiences as large as the Black Keys, Kings of Leon, Tedeschi Trucks Band, or even former member Jason Isbell (though they certainly should).

But on this night, among their fervent faithful, these Truckers didn’t drive by – they smacked them head on. And those in attendance were grateful for it - no one is calling Jim “The Texas Hammer” Adler today.

Patterson Hood often signs off his online writings with a parting of “See You at the Rock Show” – so familiar to fans that the merch table sells a $2 bumper sticker featuring the phrase. As the band took a bow, Hood promised the Houston audience they’d be back in the springtime. And by then, their dedicated audience will have a whole new set of songs to know.

Set List
Birthday Boy
The Righteous Path
A Ghost to Most
Goode’s Field Road
Made Up English Oceans
Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun
Marry Me
Sink Hole
Slow Ride Argument
Armageddon’s Back in Town
Gravity’s Gone
The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town
One of These Days
Ronnie and Neil
72 (This Highway’s Mean)
Dead, Drunk and Naked
Guitar Man Upstairs
The Company I Keep
Love Like This
A World of Hurt
Women Without Whiskey
Thoughts and Prayers
Ramon Casiano
Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn
Surrender Under Protest
The KKK Took My Baby Away (Ramones cover)
Hell No, I Ain’t Happy
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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