MANHATTAN, NY—Two longtime friends and former roommates, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, played together in various bands in the Shoals region of Alabama. Hood moved to Athens, Georgia, and in 1996 began forming what would become alternative country/Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, with the intention of luring Cooley back into the fold.
The band began releasing albums in 1998, but it was three concept albums that captured the interest and imagination of rock fans. Southern Rock Opera, a double album released in 2001, weaved the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd into a narrative about a fictitious rock band called Betamax Guillotine, whose story unfolded within the context of the South during the 1970s. Decoration Day in 2003 contained characters who were faced with hard decisions about marriage, incest, break-ups, revenge, murder, and suicide. The Dirty South in 2004 further explored the mythology of the South, with songs focusing on Sam Phillips and Sun Records, John Henry, and a three-song suite about Sheriff Buford Pusser. The band’s 10th and most recent studio album, English Oceans, was released on March 4. The group presently is comprised of Hood and Cooley on guitars and vocals, Jay Gonzalez on keyboards, guitar and vocals, Matt Patton on bass and Brad Morgan on drums.
At Terminal 5 on March 20, Hood and Cooley showed what long-term collaboration can produce. 18 years into Drive-By Truckers, the two leaders continued to trade lead vocals democratically and often augmented the other’s vocals. This teamwork also allowed for a wider berth of musical possibilities, at times moving from country folk songs to rocking guitar jams like Neil Young, and at other times chugging a groove like Creedence Clearwater Revival, and at times producing chainsaw rock like a grunge band.
Yet no two shows are alike, judging by the setlists posted on the web from various cities on the current tour. Tonight, DBT bucked a rock tradition of opening concerts with familiar songs, as the band opened with three new songs, beginning with “Primer Coat.” It only took a few moments to learn that the new songs were special and reflected a rejuvenated partnership among the core players. The second song, “The Part Of Him,” preached of the seemingly self-perpetuating procession of political scandals. The third new song, “Til He’s Dead Or Rises,” demonstrated a new level of cooperation between the band’s two principals; Hood wrote the song, but Cooley sang it. Later on, another new song, “Made Up English Oceans,” also provided social commentary, this time on Republicanism in the Reagan and Bush campaigns of the 1980s.
The more familiar songs took on a vibrant edge as well. “Lookout Mountain” transitioned from Hood’s rough singing into a smoky, sludgy guitar jam. “Why Henry Drinks” was a bluesy reflection on the downtrodden. “Ronnie And Neil,” “The Living Bubba” and “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” with its sing-along chorus, seemed to breathe with revitalized breath. The final song, “Grand Canyon,” also from the new album, was an elegy for a longtime member of the band’s touring family, who died suddenly of a heart attack in January 2013 following the first night of the band’s three-night homecoming stand in Athens. In all, Hood and Cooley’s rock and roll vision was executed cleverly and engaged its audience integrally.
Visit Drive-By Truckers at drivebytruckers.com.