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Passing the Bottle: Drive-By Truckers at the Recher Theatre, April 14

April 16, 2010

“Our songs are dark, but our shows are a lot of fun,” writes Patterson Hood in the liner notes for The Big To-Do, the new album from his band the Drive-By Truckers. Well, yes and no. The darkness in the band’s songs resides mostly in the words, while the fun resides mostly in the muscular rhythms and waves of guitar. And onstage, the words often get lost entirely beneath the Southern-rock onslaught. That was especially true in the reverberating echo chamber of the Recher Theatre Wednesday night when blare prompted the party-minded audience to repeatedly raise cheers and beers in salute. “People are losing their jobs. . . folks come to see us to forget their troubles,” Hood writes in the same notes.

But the best moments in the show came when the darkness poked its head through the curtain of bacchanalian noise and reminded us where our troubles came from. When the Truckers turned to “This Fucking Job,” the repeating riff—which sounded like a woolly mammoth stomping boxes of stale potato chips in a trash compacter—got the sold-out crowd shuffling in place. But if you could hear Hood’s vocal over the din, he admitted that the job “sucked when I had it; now it’s gone and I’m learning what bad is.” And even if you couldn’t make out the words, you could hear in his strangled tenor the desperation of a man with more debts than funds.

The characters in these songs have been put in a tight corner by the Bush recession and the Wall Street casino, but those same characters are not without blame themselves. Mike Cooley, the band’s co-founder, used a Chuck Berry groove to set up a hilarious sit-com of a wife ragging on her husband to stop “uglying up my house,” to get off the couch and to “Get Downtown” to find some work. Bassist Shonna Tucker sang “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So,” a similar song from the wife’s perspective. Hood sang two more songs about the trouble people can get their own selves into: the bouncy sing-along “Drag the Lake Charlie” about a missing husband, a missing teenage girl, and a missing car, and “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a minor-key courtroom drama about a Southern preacher with kinky sex habits.

There’s humor in all these tunes, all from the new album, but there’s an edgy nervousness as well, a suspicion that hard times might lead to something more than complaints and jokes, might lead to homelessness or murder. That tension is real obvious in the studio versions, but was less so onstage where the swagger of the triple-guitar attack swallowed up everything in its path. But the third guitarist, John Neff, who has replaced Jason Isbell, has added a new wrinkle to the band’s guitar sound, playing agitated arpeggios—broken, jittery chords that never quite resolve—underneath the big riffs. Even when you can’t discern the words, you can pick up the hint of dread.

The tension between dark lyrics and fun riffs, between daytime angst and nighttime escapism, is most taut when the band sings about alcohol. Like most rock’n'rollers, Hood and Cooley want to romanticize the drinking along with the music, if only because the two are so entangled they’re hard to separate. Unlike most songwriters, Hood and Cooley are too honest with themselves to leave it at that and have to supply the antidote for the romanticism they’ve just committed. Thus, on “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” from the new album, Hood sang, “It was all in fun; I didn’t hurt no one,” but then feels compelled to add, “until I went back for more; then there was damage done.” When Cooley sang “Women Without Whiskey” from the Southern Rock Opera album, he swears that he’s going to quit the bottle someday, but he also admits that “whiskey is hard to beat.”

The Big To-Do is as good an album as we’re likely to get this year, and as much as you’d like the band to avoid the “Self-Destructive Zones” that Cooley sang about on Wednesday, you have to appreciate the band members’ willingness to lay out their contradictions in public. There was Cooley, tall and skinny in his white-flowered cowboy shirt, baring his heart on the hillbilly ballad “Love Like This;” there was Hood, tall and round in his moonshiner beard, baring his on the valentine ballad “Feb. 14.” There they were passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels and swigging from it as if it were Gatorade. And there they were, hiding their most personal lyrics behind a wall of guitars.

Image by Jason Thrasher