Drive-By Truckers at First Avenue, 3/27/14
with Blitzen Trapper
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Somebody really ought to slip T Bone Burnett a Drive-By Truckers compilation. For all of the man's professional eminence, he missed a golden opportunity to include the Athens, Georgia-based cult favorites in the recent HBO series True Detective. The Truckers' two founding songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, share the show's obsession with the dark corners of rural southern mythology and the characters that populate it. Plus, after 18 years and 10 albums, Drive-By Truckers have enough stellar material to fill up three HBO-length episode's worth of time, which they did with gusto at First Avenue last night.
If you squint, the two frontmen of DBT even start to resemble the leading characters of True Detective. Sure, Hood and Cooley hail from northern Alabama, which is a very different place than the Louisiana Gulf Coast where the show takes place, and neither has the movie-star looks of Matthew McConaughey or Woody Harrelson. But Patterson Hood is most certainly the Detective Rust Cohle of the band, both the man and the character are sharply observant of the soul-crushing fatalism of the deep south's dead-end, and like Cohle, Hood's folksy demeanor just barely hides a bristling intelligence. That would make Cooley the analogue of man's man Marty Hart, the more plainspoken and traditionally-minded partner, with a hotshot grin earned from years of guitar slinging.
Similar to the show's earliest episodes, the Truckers spent the first portion of their set warming their crowd up for a later dramatic payoff. Idling a bit through their early minutes, the band established the format for their new lineup that's been pared down since the last time the band played Minnesota. Shrinking to a five-piece band after the departure of pedal-steel guitarist John Neff, DBT sounded leaner and perhaps a bit mellower in these early minutes, with fifth-man Jay Gonzalez mostly sticking to keyboards. The band played through most of their new album English Oceans, which lives well live, particularly on the circular rootsy grooves of "The Part of Him." To preface the song's political lyrics, Hood remarked with a wink that once Michele Bachmann is gone, "Someone else will play the part of her."
If there's something that truly sets English Oceans apart from the rest of the band's repertoire, it's the increased presence of Mike Cooley as a songwriter. While his incredible guitar playing and charm have always made Cooley's presence felt in a live setting, he penned a good deal more material this time out, and the 'Truckers did a great job of contrasting his role with Hood's. "Til He's Dead or Rising," one Cooley's two singles from Oceans got a fiery rendition that started to energize the tame crowd, who was obviously in it for the older material.
It wasn't until somewhere around the hour mark that the band started pulling out their big guns, shaking the sold-out room back into wakefulness with the murderous "Puttin' People on the Moon." Letting the song's dark, deliberate pace unravel, Drive-By Truckers showed their mastery of high drama, particularly Hood, who truly owns his group's cult appeal and knows how to push his faithful's buttons. Ramping up fan-favorite "Tornadoes" into a big sing-along moment, Hood was utterly convincing in his passionate delivery, which is telling on a song that's more than 10 years old now. The rest of the band matched his passion in the way they tore into "Ronnie and Neil," with longtime drummer Brad Morgan making the ponderous tempo seem downright apocalyptic.
Where most bands would start to wrap up their set, Drive-By Truckers seemed to be just getting under way. With most of the new material already performed, the final hours of the band's incredible run-time were a no-holds barred hit-parade for the faithful that stuck around. Sparks flew on the Warren Zevon-penned "Play it all Night Long," in which Hood changed around a few words to give a shout-out to First Avenue and Minneapolis, and on the chugging, Cooley-fronted "Women Without Whiskey." Finally ending their set-proper at around the two-hour mark with the massive, defiant "Hell No I Ain't Happy," the 'Truckers three-guitar attack swirled into an Allmans-like guitar harmony that was immensely gratifying.
After the encore started with a few thank-you's and the new gutbucket rocker "Shit Shots Count," DBT were mid-way through "Sinkhole" when Hood got sick of a meathead making trouble in the front row. "Throw him out!" the singer commanded, "I'm sick of seeing you act like a douche bag all night!" Threatening to put a boot up the offender's ass, Hood seemed like the fiery, menacing man of his youth, but ever the true entertainer, he never lost a beat. Cooley, ever the people person, was a bit more magnanimous. "Pretty soon I'll be home with my 10, 8, and 6 year old, and I'll be dealing with the same shit," he cracked. "My opponent will just weigh less."