“It’s Great To Be Alive” is the thunderous new live album from rock troubadours Drive-By Truckers and it is one of the best albums the band has ever put to tape.
Drive-By Truckers did a three-show run last November at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco that it had recorded by longtime producer David Barbe. Going through the tapes, it put together two releases; “This Weekend’s The Night” is a small snapshot of “greatest hits” and “It’s Great To Be Alive” is a massive 35-song, three-hour record of the weekend that goes much deeper into the catalog. It’s worth going the extra mile for the larger collection because it captures some truly great moments from the band, as well as being the best document that the Drive-By Truckers are one of the best live bands in the country.
Barbe has an amazing touch and this record sounds just as sharp as any studio record, which really helps clean away some of the air and echo that naturally comes from hearing a band blast out of speakers 15 feet in front of you. As someone who went to the first night of the run, I can vouch that the band sounds crisper on this record than live, which only makes me like this album even more as it enhances everything that makes this band.
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s stories are some of the most affecting songs out there, with their tales of guns, whores, murderers, drugs and booze coming off like southern gothic pulp fiction. It is not always the easiest to get lost in the stories live surrounded but a couple making out behind you and the dude to the right of you slapping you on the back saying, “Duuuuude, Hood is killin’ it tonight!” But you can hear the anguish and desperation in Hood on “Lookout Mountain” as the guitar and bassline sinisterly bubble like molten earth underneath him and “A World of Hurt” is essentially a six-minute conversation about life he has with the audience. The snarling “Three Dimes Down” is in-your-face cool and Cooley charges at the microphone with an extra gusto with the whole band rolling behind him. To hear these songs with Patterson’s full storyteller flare live versus on studio albums is the difference between reading “In Cold Blood” by yourself versus having Truman Capote read it to you by the fire.
While Cooley and Hood provide the characters for these stories, they are helped by their impeccable bandmates Jay Gonzalez on guitar and keys, Matt Patton on bass and Brad Morgan on drums to create the twisted and beautiful worlds for them to live in. These backwood shine stills and whorehouses become even more gnarled in vivid as the band builds them in real time. “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” is a waste of scorched earth as the guitars howl through it and “Grand Canyon” feels as sprawling and magnificent as the South Rim of the canyon.
The band also magnificently reworks these songs live to the point where some of them become a whole different animal. “Sounds Better In A Song” is turned from a haunting acoustic ballad in the studio to a simmering electric confessional live. The extended organ intro from Gonzalez that sprinkles over Cooley’s churning guitar gives the band a more anthemic and charging air to it, with Cooley’s short story about President Reagan visiting his hometown adding context to the band’s spitfire energy. The band lets its songs drive around a little more live to really explore all those emotional tones of their songs, “Goode Field Road” being a particularly windy backroad.
And though Drive-By Truckers is praised for being a great live band, it probably isn’t given enough credit for how soulful their music can be. Just listen to the whiskey neat guitar harmonies on “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” in the middle jam section and you’ll hear a solid slice of groove you wouldn’t pin as being from the Truckers.
That is what makes this album such a definitive piece of the band’s catalog. It captures the band at its storytelling best and shines a light on all the different places the band can go musically, some that might surprise. It will definitely make sure you don’t miss the next time it plays in your town.
- Drive-By Truckers
“It’s Great To Be Alive”
Release: Oct. 30, 2015
Notable Songs: “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” “Sounds Better In A Song,” “Goode Field Road”