Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Dave Jackson
Drive-By Truckers :: 10.28.07 :: Ram's Head Live :: Baltimore, Maryland
In a recent interview with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady on NPR's The Bryant Park Project he said, "Some kid came up to us and said, 'You know, I go to shows all the time and this whole year you guys and the Drive-By Truckers are the only bands that smile when you're on stage.'" Finn's fan has a point. There's a sad epidemic of rock bands taking themselves far too seriously. Hardly a new trend, but would someone please send Interpol and all the Smiths sound-alikes the memo that rock music should be a damn good time? Hopelessly and blessedly unfashionable, but grabbing the hearts of critics and audiences, both The Hold Steady and the Drive-By Truckers root their music firmly in the working class, spinning yarns and carving characters from deep in their sub-cultural pockets. The bright side of all this aching honesty shines in the liberating joy and ferociously infectious spirit of their live performances.
| Drive-By Truckers :: 10.28.07 :: Baltimore|
Baltimore was the Drive-By Truckers' last stop on their ambitious "The Dirt Underneath" tour, which featured all-acoustic sets spotlighting new material for Brighter Than Creation's Dark (out January 22, 2008), as well as providing a chance to hear the raucous electric guitar stomp that drives their sound pared down and more exposed. Unfortunately, an acoustic rock gig often follows the MTV Unplugged model of quieter, simpler versions of a band's popular songs. But, even within the limitations of MTV, bands can transcend this model, with Nirvana and Alice in Chains being the most obvious examples. Pre-MTV, Led Zeppelin's mid '70s shows featured acoustic sets that were as electrifying in their beauty as the amped sets were in their brutality (check out the Earls Court set on the official DVD). However, it is difficult for bands to rock the hell out of a stage and translate the raw energy of their sound on acoustic instruments. There is a certain formality implied in the word "acoustic" (unless we are talking bluegrass) that brings to mind numbered seats and bow-tied ushers checking ticket stubs with tiny flashlights.
This was not the case with the Truckers. Any preconceptions of what an acoustic gig should look and sound like were doused with Jack Daniels and kicked out into the street, doomed to find their way back to the suburbs through the subdued Sunday night waterfront of Charm City as the fourth game of the World Series flickered in every bar. While my Red Sox swept the Rockies, I stood in literally whiskey-soaked jeans, inhaling pungent Marlboro smoke and exchanging small talk with the cowboy booted and plaid shirted crowd at the Rams Head Live. Passionate Truckers fans that knew every word listened intently to the new material, cheering and whooping wildly in between. This fervent energy was not lost on the Truckers, who would return it double after a solid opening set by Austin, Texas's Ryan Bingham and The Dead Horses. Bingham's scruffy cowboy swagger had shades of young Dylan, and his coolly confident backing band had one foot planted firmly in alt-country and the other veering anywhere from post-punk distortion to Spanish balladeering. I was especially impressed with multi-instrumentalist Cory Schaub, who switched between slide, mandolin and guitar with slick ease. Keep an eye out.
| Whiskey Time with DBTs :: 10.28.07 :: Baltimore|
The Ram's Head in Baltimore has no barrier between the audience and the band and by the time the Truckers took the stage the front two inches were littered with empty shot glasses, scrunched up Bud Light cans and boxes of Marlboro Reds. "I was thinking I'm gonna have to dig deep tonight," Patterson Hood said as he surveyed the crowd before launching into opener "The Living Bubba," concluding, "But y'all provided the answer." Hood and Mike Cooley led the current lineup, which includes legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham, through a nearly two-hour set and a forty-minute encore. The Truckers were clearly honored to have Oldham along for the ride. In a moment both moving and timeless, halfway through the main set, Oldham performed his classic "I'm Your Puppet."
The whole band's skill as musicians came center stage, particularly Cooley's fast picking on both guitar and banjo and John Neff's soaring pedal steel. A haunting "Tornadoes" matched the richness of the acoustic instruments with Hood's high, cracking vocals in a slow burning buildup that breathlessly crashed down. The jam at the end of "Puttin' People on the Moon" lost none of its cathartic power in an acoustic setting, with the layers of guitars adding a deeper intensity. This setting showcased their superior songwriting as much as the band's musical chops, creating total immersion in a world of Southern culture but with resonant, universal themes. Their lyrical substance over style is a home cooked meal instead of fast food, more like the food at the Memphis Café where Hood and Cooley spent every Sunday and all the "good people would come in from church wearing their nice clothes, and we would come in all hung-over and stinkin' – I mean stinkin'." It was an overheard conversation in this café that was the inspiration for "The Night G.G. Allen Came to Town," and as Hood shared this story in the middle of that song the band members joined in the audience's howling laughter.
| Drive-By Truckers :: 10.28.07 :: Baltimore|
The encore started with a new Shona Tucker sung number called "I'm Sorry Huston," her voice draping the slightest, lovely country lilt over a well of raw grit. Let's hope she sings more leads in the future. As the handle of Jack was passed around, Hood said it was, "His favorite tour ever in the history of this band." After a stirring "World of Hurt," Baltimore singer-guitarist Rodney Henry strolled onstage. Hood put down the guitar, picked up the Jack and leaned over into the audience to sing "Buttholeville" > "State Trooper" > "Buttholeville." The stage set-up broke down as the band wailed on their instruments and Hood left his chair to dance, scream the lyrics and pass the Jack around to lucky fans in the front row. By the time the audience was jumping and pumping fists to Jim Carroll's "People Who Died," frantically attempting to get shots from Hood, Cooley was standing near the edge of the stage shredding his guitar. It was a great collective roar as the monster on the stage met the monster on the floor, soaking the whole beast with whiskey in a kinetic burst of energy that had the whole place moving and buzzing well after the Truckers disappeared backstage.
That buzz carried me into the Ram's Head bar next door, where I watched my beloved Red Sox win their second World Series. My heart went to New England, but my mind was traveling south. As I watched Jason Varitek run across the mound to hug Jonathan Papelbon I ordered myself a celebratory shot. As Cooley sings in "Carl Perkins' Cadillac," "Life ain't nothing but a blending up of all the ups and downs." Tonight, looking out on an empty bar celebrating my baseball team's victory alone with my husband, both of us agreeing that tonight was one of the best gigs we had ever been to, things were looking pretty damn up.
The Living Bubba, Carl Perkins' Cadillac, Home Front, Ghost to Most, Monument Valley, Uncle Frank, Putting People on the Moon, Space City, I'm Your Puppet, Tornadoes, Daddy's Cup, My Sweet Annette, The Night G. G. Allen Came to Town, Lisa's Birthday, Goodesfield Road, Where the Devil Don't Stay
Encore: I'm Sorry Huston, Tails Facing Up, Gravity's Gone, World of Hurt, Buttholevile > State Trooper > Buttholevile*, People Who Died*
*with Rodney Henry
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