By Hollister Dixon
If I’m honest with myself, I can admit that Drive-By Truckers isn’t a band that I should like. Its just a fact of my own tastes: a lot of Southern rock bands, where those roots go deep, just don’t work for me a lot of the time. It’s a slight musical prejudice I’ve grown to live with. Alright? Alright. Now that that’s out of the way: I love everything about the Athens, GA band. I love Mike Cooley’s deadpan voice, and Patterson Hood’s raspy falsettos. I love their all-on guitar assaults (see: ” Where the Devil Don’t Stay”) and their gentle meditations (see: “Daddy Needs A Drink”). I love their flawless storytelling, and their ability to keep even their most balls-out ambitious (read: long) albums wholly interesting. What’s more, I love that even their weaker albums are wonderful and arresting at their worst. And somehow, ten albums and 18 years in, DBT still have a better batting average than most bands.
I got the opportunity to see Patterson Hood at the tail end of a vacation-based residence at the Doug Fir Lounge at the beginning of the year, and it reminded me of how despicable it was that I’d never actually seen the band. Hood, as an immensely talented songwriter, is powerful enough to wrap an entire crowd around his finger, and I was more than a little excited to see what the full band can do.
But first up was Shovels & Rope, a husband and wife duo from Charleston, SC (as they made a point of mentioning no less than three times). At first, I wasn’t terribly interested in the band, who sounded – initially – to be a terrible attempt at a Dolly Parton/Carter Family pastiche, with no payoff. Michael Trent, the duo’s guitarist/drummer, sat astride a drumkit made up of a bass drum and a singular snare on his left, and two cymbals about five feet to his right. This came off as incredibly gimmicky and unnecessary… and it’s possible that it is, but watching him reach out to graze the hi-hat with the tip of a drumstick, I was reminded of why another cymbal gimmick exists: that of John Stanier of Battles, who does it to prevent reliance on those pieces of his kit. And so, with that in mind, I watched as the two (the other being Cary Ann Hearst, with a big mane of curly blonde hair, enough to really pull off the Parton vibes) traded guitar/drum duties, sometimes abandoning drums altogether, perpetually playing while facing each other, at the very front of the stage. At first, the crowd seemed to be on my side of things, with a lot of people who didn’t quite know what to think, but as time went on, the crowd fell in love with the two. I was seated in the balcony for this performance, so I got to watch as couples began spontaneously slow-dancing together in the middle of the crowd – something I’ve absolutely never seen at a show before. By the end of things, the word “pastiche” didn’t fit anymore, and it was clear that they were channeling those old country acts in the best way imaginable. Shovels & Rope were keeping it alive, and hats off to them.
And so came Drive-By Truckers. Watching their set, I was reminded of how little I really know about the band’s catalog, as I’ve spent most of my time focused on only two of their albums (The Dirty South, completely unrepresented here, and Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which was represented in the form of “3 Dimes Down”), and how I desperately want to get more familiar. The love for DBT was immense in the packed crowd, and you could hear people hollering left and right for song requests (the loudest of which being about 30 feet from me, who was adamant about hearing the beautiful, reserved “Sands of Iwo Jima”, one of the best cuts from The Dirty South). But, no matter what song was played, the crowd went insane every time Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood started to strum a song – including all seven of the songs from their two-month-old English Oceans.
Looking at the setlist from the last time the band was in town, two years ago, it strikes me that (other than the new songs), the setlist is very similar. This is by no means a criticism, and in fact makes the love in the room all the better. I’m not sure if the Roseland was sold-out, but it was still very packed, and it was packed with people who were just as excited this week to hear the band play “Box of Spiders” and “Zip City” and “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” as they likely were the last time the band stopped by. These days, a lot of people look down on bands who don’t vary their live sets enough, and who spend too much time “playing the new stuff” (yes, this is a criticism I’ve heard multiple times). But, getting to be in a crowd with people who don’t care what gets played, only that it gets played, is incredibly special. Really, it’s something that doesn’t quite happen enough these days.
And, after that performance, I can see myself being one of the people chanting “Cooley! Cooley! Cooley!” in between songs, the next time they come around. This is a band that has built something great, and they deserve that fanaticism.