There are bands that I come across that fall into a strange category. The quality of their output is so high and frequency so regular that I never feel that I invest the time in them that they deserve. For a long time Sonic Youth fell into that category and seeing them live (at the Roundhouse coincidentally) brought everything into sharper focus.
This is how I ended up at this Drive-by Truckers’ gig. I had a few of their albums as downloads and every time I play them I enjoy them. They have depth and musicianship in bucketloads and are lyrically sharp as a nail, drawing on the old American Gothic traditions of the Deep South. Their music is warmly familiar, an present day update of the classic Southern Rock of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot etc but with a huge social conscience. This stretches them beyond the Confederate Flag related controversies and they pick up the struggles of living in the poorer part of the USA. They take the narrative of “The Band” and update it to the present day.
But ultimately I felt I needed something to kickstart my enjoyment of them further. Their most recent album “American Band” was released last year and is very much a direct response to the state of the union than some of their previous work. In a post Obama world, I snapped it up, especially when I saw they were coming to town at the Roundhouse.
The directness is emphasised by the cover which is an elegiac photo of the Stars and Stripes at half mast, a sight the band commented was becoming more and more common in modern day America. There is an overt social and political commentary to the album with the Clash like “Surrender Under Protest” covering the downtrodden and gun massacres and ownership rights, “Ramon Castiago” and “Guns Of Umpqa”. In the latter song, Hood commented that he was reading about another mass shooting (“the largest in the US North West if you set aside the Native Americans”) on a sunny morning drinking a cup of coffee on his porch and wondered who would want to fuck up so many lives on a day like this.
The sleeve is important as it is their first to be not designed by the outsider painter Wes Freed. Up until now, Freed’s gothic cartoons have graced all of the bands LPs, giving a sense of uniformity and identity. Freed did still provide the back drop for the band’s stage, an interpretation of the “American Band” photograph by Danny Clinch, the flagpole broken in a deserted field. It is also the first LP with just two songwriters from the band.
The new album was heavily featured at a Roundhouse predominantly full of bearded men in checked shirts. Hood and Cooley are founder members of the band and rotate their songs and vocals regularly. Patterson is the son of David Hood, a regular of the Muscle Shoals studio who played on albums by Boz Scaggs, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, John Hiatt, Etta James,and Percy Sledge to name a few and is now touring with the Waterboys. Cooley is an old friend of Patterson’s and the two have been the only constants in a changing cast list.
The highlights were those rock’n’roll referencing songs “Ronnie and Neil” and “Let There Be Rock”. The former reflects on the controversy around Neil Young’s “Southern Man” critique and Ronnie Van Zandt’s response via “Sweet Home Alabama”. The relationship went via friendship to tragedy when Neil helped carry Ronnie’s casket after the fateful plane crash. I’m not sure if this last part is apocryphal but it ties the song up nicely. Before “Let There Be Rock” was performed, Hood told a lovely story about his grandmother taking him to see the Motors, UFO and AC/DC and waiting in her car, reading a book by torchlight. The band walked on to UFO’s “Lights Out (In London), a nice touch. Anyway the affection for Hood’s grandmother was huge and the influence significant as Hood toasted her and sang:
Skynyrd was set to play Huntsville,
Alabama, in the spring of 77, I had a ticket but it got canceled.
So, the show, it was rescheduled for the “Street Survivors Tour”.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
So I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd
But I sure saw Ozzy Osbourne with Randy Rhoads in 82
Right before that plane crash.
And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw AC/DC
With Bon Scott singing, “Let There Be Rock Tour”.
The crowd pleasing “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” went down a storm, “Sounds Better In The Song” and “Ever South” were long and brooding and Hood’s “What It Means” was stunning. The band were certainly channeling some of the energy of the punk heroes who had trod the boards at the Roundhouse back in the day. I also recognised the sense of story telling that Craig Finn’s The Hold Steady manage so adeptly.
“What It Means” is a ‘WTF are we all doing?’ song sparked by the shootings of black men, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Lest we forget, Martin was killed by a neighbourhood watch coordinator who was acquitted on the grounds of self defence, in questionable circumstances. Brown’s shooting prompted the Ferguson protests, the accounts differing as to whether he had his hands in the air when the police shot him.
He was running down the street
When they shot him in his tracks
About the only thing agreed upon
Is he ain’t coming back
There won’t be any trial
So the air it won’t be cleared
There’s just two sides calling names
Out of anger out of fear
If you say it wasn’t racial
When they shot him in his tracks
Well I guess that means that you ain’t black
It means that you ain’t black
I mean Barack Obama won
And you can choose where to eat
But you don’t see too many white kids lying
Bleeding on the street
Hood commented that he would be happy never to play the song again but sadly in modern America, I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.
Appropriately, the evening ended with the Truckers joined by the support band Eyelids for an angry tear through Neil Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World”, whisky bottles raised. An intense 2 hour and 15 minute set ended, no encores.
The Truckers had taken care of business.