Billboard.com — A lot of ground is covered at Drive-By Truckers shows these days. In addition to the band’s typically roaring takes on lives, politics, the broken social contract, Southern and Northern identity, violence both domestic and in foreign sands, whiskey-fueled sadness and fast-fading hope, they’ve now expanded to take on soldiers returned from overseas, revenge and the various horrors involved with family (so much so that in this Charleston stop, they tossed an abrasive cover of Springsteen’s already-abrasive “Adam Raised A Cain” into a little mid-show mini-set about Father Issues).
That they continue to pull it off in such hammering, consistent fashion is not only a credit to their staying power (and ability to weather waves like the departure of Jason Isbell last year), but, as they showed on a sweaty and Jack Daniels-fueled 25-song set in Charleston, proof that it still might make sense to buy completely into the notion that rock n’ roll is the literal answer to many, many things.
The Truckers — now a six-piece featuring John Neff on pedal steel and Jay Gonzales on keyboards and organ, ably filling in for Spooner Oldham — attempted to take a break last year, and failed miserably. Following Isbell’s departure, they retooled, pulled back and embarked on “The Dirt Underneath” tour, an unplugged-and-seated affair that found them spinning slightly quieter songs and stories. It also found them inventing new ones: the tour resulted in “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” their eighth disc and a 19-track monster that addresses – and this is an extremely abbreviated list – a father mourning the loss of his family at the gates of St. Peter, John Ford movies, shiftless emo kids, the righteous and self-righteous (mostly the latter) and, in no small measure, drinking.
On stage, the reinvigoration was more evident than on record. Back to a two-man-fronted operation (several “Hood/Cooley ’08” T-shirts were visible in the audience) and employing what looked like a small portion of Kanye West’s light show, the band barely let their feet off the gas over two and a half hours. The head Truckers swap songs and stories with customary ease, and both have amped up the power on their rafter-warping solos. (For her part, bassist Shonna Tucker got a turn in the spotlight as well, sweetly swimming through “I’m Sorry Houston,” one of her three songs she wrote and sings on “Dark.”)
Patterson Hood continues to be the kind of guy who could look like he’s having the time of his life running a municipal water plant; he literally launches himself into his thunder-rockers (the soldier story “The Man I Shot,” the thunder-across-the-plains roar of “Lookout Mountain,” the jagged acceleration in “Sinkhole”) with abandon that makes you wonder why you don’t like your job that much, or for that matter, anything. And if some part of you isn’t briefly lifted by his gonzo, AC/DC-and-Molly Hatchet-referencing rantologue “Let There Be Rock,” you should probably be at home watching cable.
Mike Cooley, Hood’s iceberg foil on the right side of the stage, approaches things from the other side of the river but with equal potency; he’s a smooth, chain-smoking sage whose songs now — “Self-Destructive Zones” and “A Ghost To Most” chief among them — are basically written entirely in quotable nuggets (Talking tough is easy when it’s other people’s evil and you’re judging what they do or don’t believe/It seems to me you’d have to have a hole you’re own to point a finger at somebody else’s sheet.”)
For this go-round, the Truckers have signed on Neff full-time, and his impossibly easy pedal-steel work lovingly decorated the country-leaning numbers like “Zoloft” and “Lisa’s Birthday.” And Gonzalez on keyboards fleshes out the band’s apparently simmering juke-joint side; his keystrokes turned “Shut Up And Get On The Plane” into a boogie-woogie monster and his organ style planted loving kisses on tracks like “Angels and Fuselage.”
Pleasingly, the band took the occasion to dig back into the crates a bit, digging up twangier chestnuts like “Zoloft,” “Wife Beater” and “Uncle Frank” from their early, more dark-comic days. The encore even saw “Nine Bullets,” one of the band’s first-ever 7″ releases. Such songs mark the birth of the Truckers’ ability to mine moments of everyday hopelessness – and in some cases, near-horror – and find a way to make them not entirely lost; you might remember that approach working for acts like Springsteen and Neil Young, both covered on this night. It’s the oldest argument in the business — rock n’ roll as salvation — but by the time the Truckers (and opening act the Dexateens) slam their shovels into a lights-up tear through “Rockin’ in the Free World,” it’s not unlikely to feel not only like it’s extremely possible, but a little silly for ever doubting it in the first place.
Here is the Drive-By Truckers’ set list:
“3 Dimes Down”
“The Righteous Path”
“Where The Devil Don’t Stay”
“The Company I Keep”
“Adam Raised A Cain”
“One of These Days”
“I’m Sorry Houston”
“The Opening Act’
“A Ghost To Most”
“The Man I Shot”
“Puttin’ People on the Moon”
“Shut Up And Get On The Plane”
“Angels and Fuselage”
“Let There Be Rock”
“Rockin’ in the Free World” (with the Dexateens)