Twenty minutes before they come on, the crowd’s excitement becomes increasingly palpable, an audible hum, an impatient restlessness swarming through the massed ranks of Drive-By Truckers die-hards pressed hard against the front of the stage and spreading quite contagiously through the serried ranks of the people craning their necks for a better view on the outer perimeter of an impressive turn-out, even thought here’s nothing yet to see, apart from a few scurrying roadies, bumping into things in the dark.
I’m standing myself on the fringes of the heaving crowd at this point, and find myself in serial conversation with a number of Uncut readers, some of whom are here not so much because they are veteran fans of The Drive-By Truckers’ back catalogue and great albums like Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, The Dirty South and A Blessing And A Curse.
Interestingly, they’ve come to the DBTs via the recent Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, several of them mentioning Andrew Muller’s Album Of The Month review in Uncut and how his claims for the record made them want to test his contention that, among other things, here was a synthesis of Lynryrd Skynyrd’s authenticity and virtuosity, The Replacement’s whiskey-sodden wit, the social conscience of Bruce Springsteen and the righteous fury of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Unanimously, they’ve been amazed that the record lived up to the advance billing, which they had probably suspected was bluster and hyperbole. They now can’t wait to see if the band can deliver live, which when I bump into some of the same people on the way out, they all, grinningly, agree they do, spectacularly.
This is the first time out for the Truckers since the departure of guitarist Jason Isbell, who for a lot of people had become the group’s creative focus, providing some of their best recent songs – the classic “Danko/Manuel” probably my own favourite among them. It was more than a little feared that the departure of such a talented player and songwriter would have impacted fairly calamitously on the band, which point of view in the event has proved entirely unfounded. Founder members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley rallied brilliantly in Isbell’s absence, and with bassist Shonna Tucker also contributing a number of surprisingly terrific songs, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark contains some of the band’s best-ever recorded work.
Live, too, Isbell, good as he was, is barely missed, with John Neff on guitar and pedal steel a more than adequate replacement and the band’s fabled three guitar line-up as ferocious tonight as it has ever been, while pianist Jay Gonzalez adds layers to their sound that weren’t previously there, by turns rocking hot and soulful, making you think more than once of Little Feat in their swampy prime.
It takes them only a couple of numbers to get into a fearsome stride, the opening “Putting People On the Moon” giving quickly way to “Self- Destructive Zones”, a vintage Cooley romp, by which time they are on all fronts positively blazing. “The Man I Shot” – one of their angriest responses to the war in Iraq, and a highlight of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark – finds the chain-smoking Cooley again in the spotlight, wailing furiously like Neil Young at his most combustible before Hood weighs in with a terrific solo of his own, the pair of them combining again with incendiary consequences on roaring versions of “Where The Devil Don’t Say” and “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”, before Shonna delivers an exquisitely-wrought “I’m Sorry Houston”.
“The Opening Act” and “A Ghost To Most”, meanwhile are aching laments, rueful and sultry, stately and composed compared to the raucously unhinged “The Living Bubba”, brilliantly exhumed from 1998’s Gangstabilly album, and a rowdily delirious run of songs that includes “Dead, Drunk And Naked”, Guitar Man Upstairs”, a howling “Ronnie And Neil”, a version of “3 Dimes Down” that would have sat proudly alongside anything on Exile On Main St, “Homefield Advantage” and a thunderous “Lookout Mountain”.
They go off after that, everyone in the room probably deafened, and are gone for so long I wonder if there’s been for some reason not evident in the performance so far some tempestuous falling out backstage. For nigh on what seems like 10 minutes, the crowd, no one really wanting to go home yet, chants for their return, the band finally reappearing for five more songs that keep them onstage for another half-hour, a rugged “Mean Old Highway” melting into a swaggering “The Righteous Path”, which in turn gives way to an unfettered “Shut Your Mouth And Get On The Plane”, a searing “World Of Pain” and, finally, a truly demented version of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” that closes with something approaching the Truckers’ equivalent of My Bloody Valentine’s fabled guitar holocaust on “You Made Me Realise”.
This time when they finally quit the stage, Cooley the last of them to go, a bottle of Jack in one hand, the other raised in acknowledgement of the crowd’s chanting roar, there’s no calling them back. They’re gone, now, and so, baby, are we.
The Drive-By Truckers played
Putting People On The Moon
The Man I Shot
Where The Devil Don’t Stay
The Company I Keep
Carl Perkins’ Cadillac
I’m Sorry Huston
The Opening Act
A Ghost To Most
The Living Bubba
Women Without Whiskey
Dead, Drunk And Naked
Guitar Man Upstairs
Ronnie & Neil
3 Dimes Down
Mean Old Highway
The Righteous Path
Shut Your Mouth And Get On the Plane
World Of Hurt
People Who Died