Drive-By Truckers with Jason Isbell photo taken by Glenn Cook at Shoalsfest October 3rd
Drive-By Truckers: Ryman Auditorium 10/4
The Ryman Auditorium with its ghost of religion hanging in the rafters is an unlikely place to see Drive-By Truckers. They were and remain a bar band – I write that in a kind way. I love bar bands. They seem to me to belong on the beer soaked, duct taped, stinking carpet of a big room with two bar tops. So there was a slight incongruity to the event itself.
The Ryman was about two thirds full, a Monday night and the Covid game was on as well. I would venture one in twenty were masked though proof of vaccination was required. The opener, Buffalo Nichols, was quietly charming and played mostly slide resonator guitar through various lush effects. He was quite effective and won the crowd over with solid songs and his aw shucks charisma. He nearly got an encore then house lights came up. This, I know from experience, is all to plan. You get your time, you humble yourself and genuflect to the main act and the house lights come up quickly to bring whatever appreciation is coming to you to a halt – but he had already won.
A short break to clear his gear and Drive-By Truckers took over. I’m not completely versed in their canon so my review is more of an aerial photograph. They are a powerful unit and pulled from various albums, rarely stopping between songs. The sound is angular and aggressive – a full-on rock and roll band. The mix was very good with one caveat; the Ryman has a big low mid-range echoing ring that makes guitars stand to the front and makes vocals sit underneath and my middle-aged dubious hearing had a difficult time making out the lyrics, which are rich, filled with southern culture references and both Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood are excellent writers. They traded off lead vocal duties throughout the night, effortlessly passing the baton. There seemed to be no set list and an occasional hand gesture or guitar intro propelled the band through the tight and powerful set.
Neither singer is what you would call a singer’s singer as was made even more apparent when former band mate Jason Isbell joined them for two songs mid-set to absolutely thundering applause. Isbell’s rich soulful tenor cut through the guitars in a way that separated his guest slot apart from the rest of the evening; then a return to the show at hand. The arrangements, chord progressions and melodies are twisted bits of a plane crash and turn in unexpected places. This is no Tom Petty show filled with sing along choruses. It is a challenging and roaring machine. The faithful down front crowded the stage, fists raised, and seemed an element of the show itself. I suspect that to the uninitiated the show would be a bit of a challenge – particularly in light of the muddled vocals. There is a dissonant component built into the songs that complements the dark nature of the writing. It’s a perfect discordant marriage – again; a bit lost in the mix. There were moments of transcendent rock and roll bliss and an occasional short lull as the songs tend to run together in one long roaring, bellowing, celebratory howl of smartly written bullishly played rock and roll. The band was firing on eight cylinders, an eight track player blasting through blown out Pioneer speakers, driving gloriously too fast down a gravel road, tires spitting dirt, a bottle underneath the bucket seat of a 1972 Pontiac Firebird on the way to a bonfire in the backwoods of Alabama. Someone is going to get hurt…
Find more about Rod Picott here: REVIEW: Rod Picott “Wood, Steel, Dust, and Dreams”