in performance: drive-by truckers

drive-by truckers: mike cooley, patterson hood, jay gonzalez, john neff and brad morgan. photo by danny clinch.

Leave it to Patterson Hood to take notice of one of rock music’s darkest and perhaps least commemorated anniversaries as last night’s Drive-By Truckers show roared into gear at Buster’s.

The evening marked 35 years since the Mississippi plane crash that claimed the lives of several members of the landmark Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Truckers have never been Skynyrd clones or even Southern rockers in any familiar sense, as this tireless 2 ¼ hour performance proved. Without a new album to promote, Hood and co-frontman Mike Cooley dug into the band’s catalogue and pulled songs from each of its nine studio albums. The tunes were fortified by hearty twang that sounded more Western than Southern (Sink Hole), Neil Young-style grunge (Heathens) and a redemptive roots hybrid that balanced old school country with Muscle Shoals soul (Mercy Buckets).

But the album that formed the show’s narrative arc was the 2002 opus Southern Rock Opera. Hood and Cooley ripped through nine tunes from the recording. But it was Hood’s pairing of the spoken word recitation The Three Great Alabama Icons (performed with slight updates) and the confessional The Southern Thing that placed the Skynyrd anniversary in proper perspective. The works underscored Hood’s long held notion of Southern “duality” – which translates into a pride in the South’s culture and embarrassment at its politics (“proud of the glory, stare down at the shame”).

The near capacity crowd took it all in, too – often singing along word to word to such unobvious Southern Rock Opera songs as Guitar Man Upstairs and Dead, Drunk and Naked. The album’s thematic and stylistic depth was enforced by a four song selection that served as a hearty encore: Cooley’s dark religious romance saga Zip City, Hood’s celebratory Let There Be Rock, Cooley’s Chuck Berry-meets-Georgia Satellites death march Shut Up and Get on the Plane (with the priceless lyric, “Your visions and your feelings, your bad dreams and intuitions are about as much use to me right now as a brand new set of golf clubs”) and Hood’s country lament Angels and Fuselage.

If the Skynyrd crash weighed on the band’s mind last night, the resulting performance served as one mighty wake.

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