Drive-By Truckers; True Believers

The Drive By Truckers
House of Blues
Myrtle Beach, June 23,2007

True Believers

(but where the *#*$ is Jason Isbell?)

drive-by-truckers

The ducks are gone; the turtles are sluggish; the tigers are caged.

Much like the dead end lives and thwarted ambitions the Drive By Truckers eulogize, the faces of the shopkeepers along the boardwalk of this thriving beach community betray an all too familiar, hollowed out contempt behind the tourist-friendly smiles.

Mike Lombardi, a retired club-circuit magician from Jersey City, eyes the stragglers who wander through his Magic City store with a mixture of bland acceptance and barely concealed mistrust. The dark, solemn eyes framed behind the less-than-stylish glasses suggest a professor saddled with students unworthy of his hard won knowledge.

In a crowded side-alley, a rare Golden Tabby tiger patiently poses for photos with a pack of under-fed, flip flop shod coeds; the photo strobes sending small shivers of mottled flesh dancing across his thickly muscled spine like a silent plea for mercy.

Years of selling cheap plastic trinkets to the faceless, sun-dazed hordes have worn even the sweet-tempered hippy in the Alligator Shop down to a fine, glazed over nub.

In bold contrast to the scenes of quite desperation on display just outside the night’s venue, the members of the Alabama-bred Truckers have clearly outdistanced even their own childhood dreams of rock-star abandon and alcohol-fueled song craft.

A sense of the sheer joy of musical community and shared experience was evident in the frequent chugs from the ubiquitous Jack Daniels bottle passed from hand to hand, in the loose-limbed body language, raw harmonies and warped, blues-streaked solos traded between guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley like a pack of pornographic playing cards.

The group opened with “Bulldozers and Dirt,” a concert favorite from Pizza Deliverance, and proceeded to ratchet up the intensity level with newer material like “Gravity’s Gone” and Cooley’s solo turn “Sounds Better in the Song,” through a scorching “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” and a near apocalyptic “Lookout Mountain”.

While their most recent albums have introduced a sleeker more sophisticated approach, there were no signs of encroaching lite-rock cynicism or stifling solemnity on display, especially notable for a band with as many years, road miles and near misses behind them as the Truckers.

In fact, the only sore spot for this reviewer was the absence of Jason Isbell, one of the finest young songwriters in the country and a perfect foil to Cooley and Hood’s more raucous approach. Isbell, who left the group in April, has contributed to the last three albums a clutch of songs which are among the most accomplished of the band’s career, songs which offer a distinctly southern yet deeply personal take on the art of country informed rock and soul. His presence was missed.

Multi-instrumentalist John Neff, who’s played on several Truckers albums and is a recent addition to the touring line up, performed ably on pedal steel and guitar, adding haunting atmospherics to “Tornadoes” and a scorched earth, Chuck Berry on speed solo to “Shut Up and Get On the Plane”.

Drummer Brad Morgan, sporting an old testament prophet demeanor and Levon Helm-like appearance, nailed down a tight yet impressively swinging bottom end with bassist Shonna Turner, a Muscle Shoals native who more than held her own in the whiskey swilling and stage charisma departments.

The night’s spotlight, of course, was divided fairly evenly between Hood and Cooley. The pair provide quite a contrast in character and stagecraft, with Cooley’s (alarmingly) bone thin Keith Richards guitar slouch playing off Hood’s wild boy/whiskey-damaged poet persona.

After a particularly inspired segue of “Buttholeville” into Springsteen’s “State Trooper,” Hood regaled the crowd with a tale of growing up in the somewhat culturally deprived environs of rural Alabama. “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I saw Kansas seven times. Even at that age I knew that “Dust in the Wind”   sucked,” he rasped with his trademark half-drunken, half-playful grin, as the band roared into liftoff with a version of “Let There Be Rock” that left the crowd chanting for an encore before the five sweat-soaked members had made their way off stage.

The band returned, acoustic guitars at the ready, for an encore that would have made for a more -than-worthy full on set by most groups standards.

Delving into a collection of quieter, more introspective material –“Heathens” being particularly well received — seemed a brave, even risky venture given the hour and level of alcohol intake amongst the night’s revelers, but the Truckers kept their foreword momentum through sheer stage presence and hard fought good will.

The acoustic interlude came to an appropriately abrupt end as the band plugged in, passed the bottle and headed for home with a fierce, speaking in tongues grind through “Birmingham” and a somehow celebratory “Dead, Drunk and Naked”.

The set ended with Hood rolling on stage, eyes closed, hands clasped with members of the audience as they shouted in unison the chorus to the Jim Carroll classic “People Who Died,” a fitting encore for a band more than willing to tip their hats to lost comrades and fallen stars, and a timely reminder of the real life perils waiting just beneath the rock star dream and just outside the venues doors.

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