Drive-By Truckers perform at The Anthem on Feb. 8, 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
Full disclosure: The songs of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have guided me through some of the best and hardest years of my adulthood. From the first discovery of Southern Rock Opera during my college years to the most recent American Band, I can write with confidence that their songs hold persistent meaning to me.
So, I will not be objective about the recent performance of Drive-By Truckers at The Anthem. Consider this your warning.
A month shy of Patterson’s 55th birthday (he shared this little bit during the show), 21 years since the first Drive-By Truckers album, and a decorated discography first paying homage to and eventually defining the Southern thing. Though I think it’s important to stress that this is a band that’s become more than their region — not defined by their Southern-ness, but flavored. Deep-fried, fresh, spicy as hell, buttery, and occasionally sweeter than sin, they can cook up just about any kind of song, but they specialize in rockers. Indeed, in this, they have no equal.
Stream American Band by the Drive-By Truckers on Spotify:
American Band was and is a protest record. I think any true fan of DBT has always seen the political strands threaded throughout their songs, but many folks chose just to hear themselves in the stories — hard-luck characters getting fucked over by society or circumstances, sometimes rising above and sometimes not. Sometimes, the government is to blame, sometimes not.
Patterson and Mike have also possessed a unique gift for telling stories that feel honest and familiar, the sorts of tales our grandmothers and uncles might have told us after a few drinks; they tell the hard ones, too — those that hide in the crevices of our minds and hearts that cannot be voiced without a kind of breaking. It’s not so bad, I guess, to see yourself in the stories, but you lose something if you fail to acknowledge the way Patterson and Mike paint pictures of the American life, not just a person.
These are Big Picture songs from Day 1. Numbers like “Ronnie and Neil” and “Birmingham” and “Angels and Fuselage” were never just about events. They just became more direct with American Band, talking about racism and guns and big lobbies, although still telling stories. Still, you cannot mistake these songs for just stories.
DBT fans tend to look like Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley — and they tend to represent a certain kind of stereotype, fair or not. Many of DBT’s fans, as a cursory glance of the comments under their social media posts, appear to support opposing viewpoints to the band’s songwriters.
Mike’s choice to write a song like “Ramon Casiano” is an indirect conversation with the fans — it’s a song about a 15-year-old boy murdered by an 18-year-old Harlon Carter, who later advocated for hard lines against immigration (particularly the Southern border, a common theme today) and became a leader and important figure for the NRA. He championed the idea that gun control of any kind is unacceptable, even going so far as to assert that violent criminals and the mentally ill accessing guns (and using them) is just the necessary price for freedom. So when Mike sang, “Someone killed Ramon Casiano / And Ramon still ain’t dead enough,” he’s not pulling punches.
And when Patterson sings, “What It Means,” well,… I’ll get back to that.
For the first time in a few years, American Band was not the feature of the show (I’ve seen them at least once a year since 2015). Having co-headlined with Lucinda Williams (good God, what a lineup! And opened by Erika Wennerstrom!) on Feb. 8, DBT streamlined their set a bit more than the usual, cutting it down to just over 90 minutes but still filling every space of The Anthem with their powerhouse rock ‘n’ roll. That left room for just a few (three, to be exact) off American Band. They played the biggest and meanest of them, as well as introducing a few never-been-recorded and hopefully forthcoming songs that were close cousins.
Fog already thick, the lights cut as they walked onstage, Mike and Patterson at the center, EZB (born Brad Morgan) behind them on the kit, Jay Gonzalez and Matt Patton flanking them, the longest-running configuration of the band. They followed the almost-standard DBT order of things, with Mike and Patterson trading song for song throughout the set. The night began with “Women Without Whiskey,” an old-fan favorite and set standard from Southern Rock Opera, followed by Hood’s “Fourth Night of My Drinking” from Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and a roaring rendition of “Shit Shots Count” off English Oceans. If it’s not already clear to you, reader, they played songs from most of their oeuvre, including eight of their albums.
The Drive-By Truckers also played a few new songs, such as “Babies in Cages,” the lyrics to which Patterson first shared on Instagram last summer. It was a hard song, cutting deeply and evoking responses, either those of agreement or disagreement (a few DBT fans in the audience clearly expressed disdain for the band’s political leanings). Patterson later led the band through another unrecorded song, “Thoughts and Prayers,” a lyric of which I (think I) recall reading on Twitter last summer and a line I had saved in my documents, “deliver us from evil, thoughts and prayers.”
Another highlight of the night occurred when an incendiary Matt Patton (bass) led the band through the Ramones song, “The KKK Took My Baby Away” before they brought the lights down so Patterson could sing “What It Means.” He wrote this song several years ago in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, from a perspective as close to his own as possible. He asked a lot of questions, made a few small assertions, but mostly he played the role of a white man talking about the awful way American society treats black boys and black men. Again, no punches pulled.
On this night, as is almost a custom for the Drive-By Truckers, the band suddenly played slowly, and Patterson Hood told a story about himself, about the hope he has and the closest he has come to answering the questions he asks in “What It Means.” He saw Patti Smith on her 40th anniversary Horses tour — her gigantic presence belying her diminutive stature — ghostly silver hair trailing behind her, hands outstretched. And he showed us, himself, all lights cut off but a single spotlight on him, stretching out his own arms. And like Patti, he shouted, “Love each other, motherfuckers.” And the band came back to play, but if there ever was a moment to define the cathartic power of a shared experience, it was this one.
The Drive-By Truckers then ripped through Mike Cooley’s “Surrender Under Protest,” a song inspired by civil rights activists campaigning to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. Again, Mike used the past to discuss what was happening today: Folks rewrite history (such as through the “Lost Cause”) in an attempt to re-contextualize what happened in a different (false) light, such as the modern attempts to celebrate the Confederate flag for being something it isn’t.
It was the perfect song to follow “What It Means” on this night, as Mike sang, “If the victims and aggressors / Just remain each other’s others / And the instigators never fight their own,” he laid out the idea that the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate that encourages “othering” as well as expressing the importance of everybody fighting that idea. The phrase “compelled, but not defeated” and the refrain, “Surrender under protest, if you must,” both evoke the way Robert E. Lee surrendered at the end of the Civil War.
The band moved in a somewhat less political direction to bring the set closer to its end, guiding the audience through the sloshing singalongs of “Lookout Mountain” and “Gravity’s Gone” before ending the night with the always-favorite purgation of “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” with a delightful interlude of Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times” before ending with the perfectly imperfect, “But I ain’t too crappy, too crappy at all.”
Go see them next time they come through.
And remember: Love each other, motherfuckers.
Here are some more photos of the Drive-By Truckers show at The Anthem on Feb. 8, 2019. All photos courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.