in performance: drive-by truckers

drive-by truckers 1

drive-by truckers: jay gonzalez, patterson hood, matt patton, mike cooley and brad morgan.

Sometimes you can’t help saving your best trick until the end of the night. That’s essentially what happened last night as Drive-By Truckers began to call it an evening at Buster’s.

Up to that point, the venerable Athens, Ga. troupe, which has long been the antithesis of the conventional southern rock band, had already put in a solid night’s work. It heaped on 2 ½ hours of rough cut, guitar saturated rock ‘n’ roll, along with all the scorched solos and meaty riffs such music triggers. But the band’s songs, now solely the products of guitarist/singers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, regularly soared beyond all that by exploring dark urban myths and even darker rural realities.

Sometimes the songs were threadbare in their sense of desolation, as in Hood’s Pauline Hawkins, one of six grim tales from the Truckers’ fine new English Oceans album. In other instances, the mood was more forgiving and hopeful, as in A World of Hurt (another Hood tune, this one from 2006’s A Blessing and a Curse). Last night, Hood repeated the song’s simple affirmation (“it’s good to be alive”) as if it were a mantra.

One could go on about the distinctions between Patterson and Cooley as songwriters underscored during the show. Patterson was more the street evangelist. For Puttin’ People on the Moon, he raged politely about unemployment, health care and distrust of Washington politics – topical stuff, until you realized the song was over a decade old. But Hood still proclaimed faith in life, love and especially music in the encore warhorse Let There Be Rock.

Cooley’s songs, while every bit as detailed, were told in more conversational terms, as with the bittersweet English Oceans parental reflection Primer Coat or the jagged country postscript A Ghost to Most from 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark that offered a more introspective restlessness (“Talkin’ tough is easy when it’s other people’s evil”). Sadly, last night’s sound mix wasn’t always kind to the lower end of Cooley’s singing, causing entire verses of his lyrics to be lost.

But it was the show-closing Grand Canyon that smoked everything. A remembrance for longtime band co-hort Craig Lieske, the song was one of the few instances where the Truckers told their story in largely sonic terms.

The tune’s power came in waves. An initial ripple effect of guitars splintered into freeform electric chaos that ended with each player leaving the stage one-by-one, paring the music down to Brad Morgan’s solemn drum foundation and a layer of purposeful feedback that rang out after his exit. Part eulogy, part musical anarchy, Grand Canyon was a grand finale in every respect. If you left early, you definitely missed out.

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