Maybe the liner notes are an apology: “It’s the songs,” says Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona; and yes, the songs are great, but pop in the CD of the Drive-By Truckers‘ audio/visual combo Live from Austin, TX (New West), and you can’t help but wonder if “their kick-ass rock and roll sound” got left on the bus with the ubiquitous bottle of Jack Daniels.
Patterson Hood has on his nice corduroy jacket, and the set starts off with three relatively subdued numbers for the raucous sextet. Not until “Puttin’ People on the Moon” does the Truckers’ signature Alabama ass-whoopin’ commence in earnest, and with setlists that usually include at least a few ear-bleeders, the CD’s brightest spot is Hood’s narrative before “18 Wheels of Love.” Maybe along with Lickona’s disclaimer should have come directions for use: “Insert DVD first.”
Even before the first notes, it’s obvious that this is a huge honor for the band, and one can understand a degree of reverence for the moment. On the second track, “Heathens,” a quiet song with a redneck punk message, Hood stands in his best rock-out pose, trying mightily to squeeze both rock and reverence from his acoustic guitar. But despite any shyness the band might feel at the outset, they shake off the jitters by Mike Cooley‘s “Ghost to Most.” Yes, Mr. Lickona, the songs are great, but that’s no reason to bury the rock beneath six feet of Texas mud.
There’s no question that DBT has grown up since Southern Rock Opera blew them onto the pages of virtually every music magazine, and Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the most recent studio album from which five of Live from Austin, TX‘s thirteen tracks come, was testament to that. John Neff‘s pedal steel and Jay Gonzalez‘s keyboards share the stage with Hood and Cooley’s acoustic guitars on “Perfect Timing” and “Heathens,” much like the album versions “The Righteous Path” gets the rock show started proper, and Cooley rips his guitar up like every 13-year-old headbanger’s dream. Shonna Tucker‘s deep country voice slow dances beautifully with Neff’s pedal steel on “I’m Sorry Houston,” and Cooley’s “Space City” is the perfect reprieve after the righteous anger of “Puttin’ People on the Moon” ferments the crowd into a moonshine-soaked, fist-pumping tirade.
The difference in sound quality between the CD and DVD is most evident on “The Living Bubba,” where the reverb nearly shatters the glass on the TV screen, but the stereo speakers just hum along lazily. “Zip City” is more of the same, muffled and quiet. The rockers don’t really rock, and the quiet ones just snore. The DVD sounds rich and full of ringing guitar strings, chiming organ, rattling drums, and yes, great songs. So, if you’re thinking about buying Live from Austin, TX for your car, take Mr. Lickona’s notes to heart and move along to the next DBT selection in the rack. But, if you like to watch your rock as well as listen, take them as a reminder that yes, beneath Hood’s snarl, Cooley’s cool, and the big rock stomp of Tucker and Morgan, there’s a depth to these songs that’s the real reason you hold this set in your hands. Any band can make your ears bleed, but it’s the ones that make your eyes water that make it to Austin City Limits.
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