The pre-show buzz was polite if not a little quiet. Attendants buzzed around taking people to their seats and couples idled in line waiting to get drinks at the bar. Light glistened off the polished drum set on stage, the guitars were stacked neatly on racks like a rock and roll arsenal. Despite the instruments, the crowd at the MontBleu Resort, Casino & Spa Saturday night felt more like it was hosting a generally well-received community college play than one of the best rock bands of its generation, the Drive-By Truckers.
But when the lights cut out and drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Matt Patton, organist and guitarist Jay Gonzalez, guitarist Mike Cooley and guitarist Patterson Hood walked onto the stage looking ruggedly svelte in sport jackets, button downs and jeans, the crowd didn’t matter. The ritual was upon us, the cathartic release that is a Truckers’ rock show was primed and ready for the shores of Lake Tahoe. Hood was grinning ear to ear as they all strapped in and warmed up their engines.
The band is riding a critical high right now after the release of its socially conscious and emotionally charged new album “American Band,” with many critics praising it as one of the year’s best. The record wrestles with gun violence, police brutality and immigration among other things, all done in the typical Trucker fashion of brutally honest storytelling with a Southern aesthetic. The band served up a four-fingered shot of its latest release to start off the show by reeling through “When the Sun Don’t Shine,” “Ramon Casiano,” “Darkened Flags On The Cusp Of Dawn” and “Surrender Under Protest.”
The last song boomed out of the speakers as Gonzalez, Hood, Cooley and Patton shouted the defiant chorus out in unison, the four lined up across the stage like demonstrators. “American Band” has been labeled a political album and a deviation of sorts for the band in terms of the subject matter for songwriters Cooley and Hood. But then you realize that the songs are still raw meditations on gnarly, gritty, shit — standard Trucker fare, and the “American Band’ songs blended nicely with the rest of the band’s catalog.
It has to be said that this iteration of the Drive-By Truckers is the tightest and most vibrant it has ever been over its long and storied career. Cooley, Hood and Morgan have been stalwart comrades for 17 years now and the relatively recent additions of Gonzalez and Patton have really helped to enrich the group’s sound, evolving from raw-knuckled, guitar-driven rock to a texturized band that draws from a boiled-down mash of rock, soul, alternative and country rooted in Southern soil.
Gonzalez’s haunting organ accentuated the tragicness of “Plastic Flowers Along the Highway” as Cooley’s solo curled around his organ flourishes like the smoke rising from the crashed truck detailed in the song. “My Sweet Annette” was treated to some crisp, tender licks from Hood and Cooley that gave it an-autumn like feel. The ability to create different types of ambiance within its own songs is a sign the Truckers are continually evolving toward the more complex while still staying true to what they are.
And what the band has always been is a sweaty, fun, rock and roll band. Hood was loose and in good spirits and railed on his guitar with excited tenacity, Cooley contrasting his brother in arms nicely with his outlaw coolness in both appearance and playing. They baptized the crowd in fire with a sinister “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” Cooley’s slide cutting through the three-axe attack like a hot, rusted knife through a tin roof. Hood then rose everyone from the smoldering ashes with his sermon for Trucker fans “Let There Be Rock,” as spiritual and cleansing as any Sunday service.
Hood proved that no true rock show is complete without a story about having drug-fueled swingers living next door and told the inspiration behind “Margo and Harold” from their 1998 album “Pizza Deliverance” at the behest of drummer Brad Morgan. Hood told of “the night creepiest night of his life” when … well some things at a rock show you just have to be there for, plus, he wouldn’t want that to end up on the internet. Just know the song was written before that scene in “Pulp Fiction.”
Toward the end of the show, someone yelled “Freebird!” prompting a smile from Hood. It is both one of rock’s lamest cliches and an an allusion to the band that is a cornerstone in Trucker history, Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose mythology helped inspire the Drive-By Truckers’ monumental double-album “Southern Rock Opera.” The stereotypes and iconography tied to Skynyrd is what the Truckers have always tried to challenge with its own existence, while still honoring the musical impact Skynyrd had on the band. There’d be no Drive-By Truckers without Lynyrd Skynyrd, but the Drive-By Truckers are no Lynyrd Skynyrd, they are something much more.
The Truckers began the finale tearing through a red-hot “Kinky Hypocrite” with boozy bravado. Gonzalez banged out the blues rhythm on his keys like he was at a rowdy saloon, with Cooley cranking out suggestive solos and whipping up the crowd as he mused on the debauchery politicians and pastors find themselves in behind closed doors.
The night was capped with a thundering “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” as Hood injected with piss and vinegar in his screams over the cacophony of drums and guitars bashing into each other. Hood rose his guitar over his head in triumph as the song drowned in its own reverb. Another night of rock and roll glory presided over by the Drive-By Truckers. As Hood walked off stage with the rest of his band members, he grabbed the mic and shot out in defiant satisfaction, “I got your Freebird!”
Q&A with Patterson Hood LINK
“American Band” album review LINK
- Drive-By Truckers
Oct. 8, 2016, MontBleu Casino, Resort & Spa
- When the Sun Don’t Shine
Darkened Flags On The Cusp Of Dawn
Surrender Under Protest
Plastic Flowers Along the Highway
72 (This Highway’s Mean)
My Sweet Annette
Filthy and Fried
Once They Banned Imagine
Margo and Harold
Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife
Where the Devil Don’t Stay
Let There Be Rock
Hell No I Ain’t Happy
- To see all of Larry Sabo’s photos, click the LINK