Jason Isbell, who sang and played guitar in the Drive-By Truckers back when the band had three great singer-songwriters in its lineup, has a strong new record out today called Southeastern. Dwight Garner wrote a great profile of Isbell for The New York Times Magazine, which is well worth reading. Isbell recently went through rehab, and he has emerged from that experience with a terrific set of new songs. Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, came to Chicago on Saturday (June 8), playing at the North Center street festival called Ribfest. The set included several of the new songs, both the softer, acoustic ballads and the rockers like “Super 8.” And of course, Ibsell and the 400 Unit played some of his best-known songs from previous records, including “Codeine” and the touching tribute to a friend killed in war, “Dress Blues.” And of course of course he delivered the signature tunes he first played with the DBT’s: “Decoration Day,” “Never Gonna Change” and “Outfit.” Isbell’s fans sang along enthusiastically.
After avidly following the Drive-By Truckers through several great albums and something like seven concerts, I fell a bit out of touch with the group over the past few years. I barely paid attention to the Southern rock group’s 2010 album The Big To-Do, and I hadn’t seen them live since they co-headlined with the Hold Steady back in 2008. (Photos.)
So Saturday night’s concert at the Vic felt like getting reacquainted with some old friends. The latest album by the DBTs, Go-Go Boots, is a strong one, a whole new batch of memorable songs by the group’s two main singer-songwriter-guitarists, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, with subtle melodic hooks and characters worthy of good fiction. It’s clear now that the departure of the band’s other voice, Jason Isbell, a few years ago hasn’t slowed down this crew one bit.
The prolific band has a lot of material to choose from, and Saturday night’s show leaned heavily on the recent songs, at least during its first half. The band even brought out some burlesque dancers to illustrate the song “Go-Go Boots.” As always, Hood grinned a lot as he sang or stomped around with his guitar, looking like he was having the time of his life. He’s one of those musicians who conveys a honest exuberance in every performance. Cooley’s more laconic, not as much of a showman, and there’s a laid-back, conversational style to his vocals. It’s the juxtaposition of those voices that makes the DBTs such a special outfit. Bassist Shonna Tucker sings a few songs, too, and she sounded more confident than she did on her original contributions, adding a nice female counterpoint to the guys. Filled out by Brad Morgan, John Neff and Jay Gonzalez, the Drive-By Truckers are a tight group that knows how to play buzz-saw guitar riffs as well as song with more of a soulful swing.
They went deeper into their catalog during the second half of the nearly 2 1/2-hour show, playing older songs such as “Shut Up and Get On the Plane,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” “72 (This Highway’s Mean)” and “The Living Bubba.” In the encore, Kelly Hogan came out and sang lead vocals on a smooth cover of the Staple Singers/Curtis Mayfield song, “Let’s Do It Again.” The evening ended with another track from the classic double-album Southern Rock Opera, “Angels and Fuselage,” with Hood singing the pleading chorus: “I’m scared shitless…” The band left the stage one by one, until drummer Brad Morgan was the only one left. The backdrop was a couple of banners designed to look like stained-glass windows containing the ominous bird-like monster that’s become the band’s symbol. Morgan’s drum kit had an extra bass drum sitting next to him, decorated with the words “Go-Go Boots” in the shape of a cross, and making the stage appear like some dark chapel of Southern rock. Morgan didn’t use that bass drum much during the show, but in the final seconds, he reached over toward it with his mallet and thumped out the last, dramatic beats of the night.
During the set by tonight’s opening act, American Minor, someone in the crowd yelled out, “Play some Skynyrd!” (This is one conert where such a request is only half-joking.) American Minor’s singer replied, “We’ll play some Skynyrd-inspired shit. That’s what you’re here for, right?” It was indeed — although I think it’s unfair to limit the description of the headlining band, the Drive-By Truckers, to Lynyrd Skynyrd-style Southern rock. The Truckers have made their influences obvious, but their catalog of original music is so rich with great songs that there’s no reason to think of them as some novelty — a band in the 21st century playing 1970s-style triple-guitar countrified Southern rock? Imagine that.
American Minor was actually not all that Skynyrd-influenced, though ’70s rock was the source of everything the opening act played. I heard a lot of Bad Company, and a friend remarked that they reminded him of Alice Cooper. It was pretty good for what it was, with some decent guitar playing and a few dramatic musical moments, but I thought American Minor wore thin after a while. Another band, like Wolfmother, that needs to expand its sound a little beyond the influences.
The Drive-By Truckers, on the other hand, have taken similar influences and forged them into a sound all their own. They were in excellent form tonight, playing a lot of songs from their last few albums, and a few numbers from older records like Southern Rock Opera and Gangstabilly.
As usual, Patterson Hood was the most animated guy of the bunch. That grin of his is infectious. He always looks like he is having the time of his life as he performs up there on the stage, and he has a bit of Southern preacher in him as he holds forth at the microphone. Jason Isbell and Mike Cooley are a little more reserved in their stage presence, but their songs are just as good as Hood’s. Isbell’s anthem “Outfit” got an especially strong response from the crowd.
It was just another night for one of the world’s great rock bands.