By Paul Robicheau
The band has tackled the Trump era with an urgent political edge on two recent albums that have surely lost them a share of good ’ole boys who were part of earlier audiences.
Drive-By Truckers are steeped in a dark Southern mythology that extends to human nature at large. Sure, Alabama-bred co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have uncorked plenty of ripsnorting rockers over the last two decades, but the two singer/songwriters have also dissected the underbelly of American culture with hard-luck tales of drugs, alcohol, divorce, and suicide. And the band has tackled the Trump era with an even more urgent political edge on two recent albums that surely lost them a share of good ’ole boys who were part of earlier audiences.
The Truckers particularly assailed gun violence and racism on 2016’s American Band. The new The Unraveling — referring to both country and psyche — paints wider despair and disgust in more overt strokes. Take “Thoughts and Prayers,” which was at the center of the group’s sold-out Saturday show at the Somerville Theater. “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers,” Hood sang with a snarl for those who spout no-action condolences, eliciting cheers from like-minded Bostonians. Only after that did he make the bromide his own, crying with heartfelt passion, “Glory Hallelujah, you are in our thoughts and prayers!”
The band scattered a handful of other songs from The Unraveling across a two-hour-plus set, but this night wasn’t so geared to protest. That album’s “21st Century USA” (about “folks working hard for shrinking pay”) and the forthright “Babies in Cages” never even appeared. And “Heroin Again” offered no answers for opioid addicts beyond Hood’s chorus “Thought you knew better than that.”
Granted, lyrics were often hard to glean in a muddy sound mix, especially early in the night, while the band’s bleak character studies were accented by backlights that underlit the musicians while they annoyingly blinded fans. It was a shame for such a lyric-focused group. Even when the quintet rocked its ’70s-styled amalgam of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and the Rolling Stones, the guitars — up to three when Jay Gonzalez moved from keyboards to join Cooley and Hood – blurred together, making some songs harder to distinguish from others.
Drive-By Truckers are also one of those bands that challenge themselves and their diehard audience by mixing up long sets with a varied assortment of deep tracks. Saturday featured several songs from Southern Rock Opera, a 2001 coming-of-age opus inspired by the legacy of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Truckers first settled in sonically with that album’s opening tracks in Hood’s sober narration of “Days of Graduation,” an eerie account of a joy ride turned deadly, then segued into “Ronnie and Neil,” a riff-heavy ode to Skynyrd singer Van Zant and Mr. Young.
“Rock stars today aren’t half as real, speaking their minds on how they feel,” Hood sang of a problem his band doesn’t have. Later, with an assist from Rex Sox organist Josh Kantor, Hood fired up Southern Rock Opera’s “Let There Be Rock,” a celebration of concert idols from his youth (he never saw Skynyrd but AC/DC and the Replacements made the cut). And the night closed with Cooley-sung rocker “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” and album denouement “Angels and Fuselage,” where Hood’s line “I’m scared shitless, of what’s coming next” could fit either Van Zant and his Skynyrd cohorts, who perished in a plane crash, or anyone facing life itself.
Among the night’s other standouts were Cooley’s spirited rocker “Marry Me” (from the early aughts when Jason Isbell was in the band), the country-flavored rarity “Tales Facing Up,” and “Goode’s Field Road.” Cooley laced jazzy leads over singer Hood’s swampy scratch in that ominous march about a desperate family man plotting his demise for insurance money. Elsewhere, Cooley lent haunting slide counterpoint to songs like the new “Awaiting Resurrection,” a long, slow burner that Hood might have embraced for the small theater setting.
Likewise, Hood nestled into the achy “A World of Hurt,” surging to the realization, “It’s a beautiful world if you can put away the sadness” and “It’s fuckin’ great to be alive!” Much like the steady nature of drummer Brad Morgan’s unfussy beats and bassist Matt Patton’s oddly omnipresent smile, that song alone seemed to sum up the Truckers’ world view of triumph over tragedies.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.