Live Review, 3/16/12: Drive-By Truckers Are Pretty Much Why We Bothered Having Rock 'n' Roll in the First Place

Categories: Last Night
Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, and Matt Patton
Drive-By Truckers
Friday, March 16, 2012
The Fillmore

Somewhere out there in the multiverse, on Earth 2 or some damn place, opening for what's left of Lynyrd Skynyrd back in '02 brought Drive-By Truckers to the attention of a clutch classic rock and AOR program directors. A little embarrassed that they hadn't played a new band since The Black Crowes, the directors embraced "Let There Be Rock," the most arena-sized of the shout-a-long meta-narratives comprising the band's lumbering Southern Rock Opera, a dissertation of a double record that finds the Truckers carrying on for two hours about great southern rock bands but not always quite being one, yet.

"Let There Be Rock" hit, of course.

Radio embraced 'em, and radio listeners did, too, eventually, because that's the thing people in radio forget about radio: It can lead. Then the Truckers kept on hitting, especially when Decoration Day came out, when suddenly it wasn't just great songwriting that was carrying them -- finally, they sounded as good as the bands they sang about. 

Jason Isbell's "Outfit" stiffed at pop but went top-10 country, once the line about being bigger than Jesus got cut, and Mike Cooley's "Marry Me" scored so big at nostalgia-rock radio that the Eagles felt obliged to threaten a lawsuit over its similarities to their significantly less awesome "Already Gone." "Lookout Mountain" and "Gravity's Gone" inspired a thousand high school garage bands; in '08 "The Righteous Path" was that tough-minded rock-will-get-us-through-troubled-times hit Springsteen keeps trying for.

Somewhere in there, Patterson Hood probably got yelled at by Fox for swearing on the Grammys or the Super Bowl, and the ongoing tumult in the band's lineup must have been chum for hungry tabloids, especially when Isbell split and unleashed a bitter classic about his bust-up with bass player Shonna Tucker. But mostly, year after year, record after record, the Truckers got bigger and bigger doing what they've always done: bashing out urgent hard-and-countrified rock songs that depict broke-assed rural American life with neither the condescension of alt-country nor the jingoism of Nashville. 

Which is why the biggest news on that counter-Earth today is that Friday night Patterson Hood opened a Drive-By Truckers show with "Fuck you, Santorum! Fuck you, Newt Gingrich! And fuck you, Mitt Romney!"

Patterson Hood, John Neff, Mike Cooley. Not Pictured: Poor Rick Santorum.
​Sure, this was at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where shouting "Fuck [Insert a Republican Here] is about as dangerous as yelling "Yankees suck" at Fenway. But what's dispiriting here, on the real Earth -- where the cowardice of radio and record labels has left DBT as a hard-touring cult band -- is that Hood's spleen-venting holds such little weight. 

Just a decade after the Dixie Chicks got burned in effigy, it's gratifying to hear such a pronouncement from the lead songwriter of the one of the only bands in America making vital new rock music that could fit right in on any classic-rock station. But it's also downright sad that the millions who should be pissed off about that never even got a chance to care.

Those who do care about the Truckers got a killer rock show Friday, even as the band is in a bit of an idyll. Since 2010 they've released two grab-bag records of new material and a hopelessly inadequate single-disc best-of, but at the moment they're between projects (and bass players), which might explain a set-list that drew widely from across Hood and Mike Cooley's 16 year history as DBT. 

Mike Cooley
The band tore into the the primitive, passionate slop rock of "The Living Bubba" and "Love Like This," from their half-produced first two albums. (To their credit, they don't complicate the early stuff with all the pro tips they've learned since.) The lurching power-chords of key middle-period songs like "Where the Devil Won't Stay" punch a little less hard than when Isbell swapped lead lines with Cooley, but the rhythms have gotten richer and lighter since his departure, a trade I'm pleased with. 

The band's recent interest in Southern soul and country has increased its emotional range. Hood's buoyant cover of Eddie Hinton's "Everybody Needs Love" is more than just a burst of warmth in a sometimes dark-hearted catalog. It's a potent reminder that rock, R&B, and hillbilly are all drawn from the same well. Cooley's airy, heartbroke "Pulaski," on the other hand, is country straight-up, right down to the dead dog and the heroine's "Baptist values." Even a more traditional Truckers song like Hood's "Used to Be a Cop" -- a harrowing character sketch of at least one guy you knew in high school -- is enlivened by the band's expanding palate. 

An anxious dirge lightly funked up with (on record) by Jay Gonzalez's noirish electric piano and Shonna Tucker's R&B bass lines, "Used to Be a Cop" became even more powerful at the Fillmore, where fill-in bassist Matt Patton and drummer Brad Morgan locked into a jittery swamp groove, one that suggested a darker "Watching the Detectives" that never once bursts into a chorus.

Thousands of shows have sharpened the band rather than dulled it. Hood still looks pig-in-shit happy to be singing to live paying customers; Cooley remains stoic, close-lipped, like he's saving all his thoughts for the next song. The two swapped turns singing lead the whole show, a possibility since the position of third, junior songwriter has been filled now that Tucker and Isbell have finished their internships. The swapping balances the show: Hood eschews traditional verse-chorus structures and at times becomes downright florid for a rock songwriter; Cooley favors riffs, one-liners, and fleet-moving ditties, and he gets better at 'em every year. 

That makes Mike Cooley something rare in 2012: A guy who writes great old-fashioned rock and country that never feels old-fashioned. No matter how Stones-y they get, songs like "3 Dimes Down" or "Self Destructive Zones" never feel like pastiches. They feel like the best way he could find to say what he needs to say -- which is what rock 'n' roll supposed to be all about, right?

Toward the end of a show that ran almost 150 minutes, Hood led the band through an epic take on his dumb, angry, punkish "Buttholeville." This turned into a haunted run-through of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper," somehow, which sums Hood up perfectly: He respects the Boss but also writes furious songs called "Buttholeville" that turn his demons into walls of goddamned noise and sound.

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Critic's Notebook
Here's eight things Mike Cooley has put better than any other songwriter:

On the Year Nirvana Killed Hair Rock:
"The pawn shops were packed like a backstage party/ Hanging full of pointy, ugly cheap guitars" ("Self Destructive Zones")

On the Costs of Development:
"They flooded out the hollow/ And all the folks down there moved out/ But they got paid so there ain't nothing left to think about." ("Uncle Frank")

On People Like Those Politicians Patterson Hood Yelled About
"Talkin' tough is easy when it's other people's evil/ And you're judging what they do or don't believe/ Seems to me you'd have to have a hole in your own to point a finger at somebody else's sheet." ("A Ghost to Most")

On Not Being Garrulous
"Just 'cause I don't run my mouth/ Don't mean I got nothing to say." ("Marry Me")

On Assholes You Know Who Made Their Money Too Easily
"Cocaine rich comes quick/ That's why the small dicks have it all." ("Gravity's Gone")

On Being a Sex Worker
"'Which one's the birthday boy?' she said/ "I ain't got all night." ("Birthday Boy")

On Being a 17-Year-Old Boy
"Keep your drawers on, girl, it ain't worth the fight/ By the time you drop them I'll be gone/ And you'll be right where they fall the rest of your life" ("Zip City")

On Being in the Wrong Parking Lot on the Wrong Night
"Totally screwed while chicken wing puke/ Eats the candy-apple red off his Corvette" ("3 Dimes Down")

Replacement Bass Player:
Matt Patton did great, although it's a shame that Shonna Tucker's songs -- like Jason Isbell's -- are no longer part of the DBT lineup. He smiles and bobs so gamely he looks like the happiest guy on the earth or any other.

I Do Believe
Where the Devil Don't Stay
The Southern Thing
72 (This Highway's Mean)
Everybody Needs Love
Aftermath U.S.A.
Love Like This
The Living Bubba
Three Dimes Down
Used to Be a Cop
Self Destructive Zones
Play it All Night Long 
Get Downtown
Lookout Mountain
Marry Me
Hell No, I Ain't Happy

Birthday Boy
Girls Who Smoke
Zip City
Goode's Field Road
Women Without Whiskey
World of Hurt
Shut Up and Get on the Plane
Buttholeville/State Trooper
Angels and Fuselage

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