It’s almost as important to see the Drive-By Truckers show at the Royale as to join a march in the streets outside.
By Milo Miles
A common notion these days is that political protest in popular music is oddly absent, or muted at best. Common notion, but incorrect: last year’s releases included two of the most seductive, intelligent protest albums ever made. A Tribe Called Quest hit a torrent of hip-hop activist notes with We Got It From Here … Thank You for Your Service (it even ended with a track called “The Donald”). But, as the title suggests, it was a farewell and a final release from the group. In contrast, Drive-By Truckers released American Band and co-leader Patterson Hood’s liner notes include an undeniable fact: “Drive-By Truckers are completing our twentieth year on a high note.”
Beyond its themes, American Band relentlessly delivers modern rock full of the old-fashioned sensual pleasures of the music. A common notion that’s true is that too much new pop sounds timid and labored-over. Not here. Hood describes the music as “The Clash meets Marty Robbins perhaps.” Singer/songwriter/guitarists Hood and Mike Cooley have fused their phrases and solos without any misplaced moments. And they have now played with bassist Matt Patton, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez and drummer Brad Morgan longer than any other lineup of the band, and the payoff is exquisite. Put away those old albums by the Band.
The first song gets right to it: “It all started with the border/And that’s still where it is today.” Cooley’s lament about the now-forgotten 1931 killing of Ramon Casiano could be a story at the top of this morning’s news sites and American Band never looks back or lets up. To grab just one example, Hood’s “What It Means” is an eloquent and stricken statement on race, violence, and our society. A flat-out necessary song.
It’s almost as important to see this show at the Royale as to join a march in the streets outside. Perhaps American Band was intended to feel triumphant with a different election outcome. Now, however, it has become defiant – triumphantly defiant.
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.