Drive-By Truckers, it seems, have never lost that capacity to startle and surprise. They shocked everyone back in 2001 with the sprawling double album that was Southern Rock Opera, they even managed to better that a few years later with The Dirty South, brought the devastatingly brilliant Jason Isbell‘s songwriting to the world for a few long players, and last year, eleven albums in, released American Band, which I personally regard as their finest work to date. Tonight’s show in Manchester may even be the greatest one I have ever attended.
Before the Truckers emerged, however, we welcomed Portland, Oregon’s Eyelids to the stage. They had been passionately described to us before the gig as “kind of like Portland’s version of Guided By Voices” by DBT’s own Jay Gonzalez, who, incidentally, joined them on stage for one number. That was some heady praise, and as it turns out, was bang on the money. Proud to be performing in a city with so much musical history, the band declared themselves as “total Anglophiles” from the outset and delivered an infectiously intelligent, and somewhat celebratory set in which they even successfully snaffled the main guitar motif from ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others‘ in their penultimate song. If the local pub quiz team decided to form a band, this is absolutely how they would look, but man, can they play!
The last time I saw Drive-By Truckers live, meanwhile, at Leamington Assembly, they played twenty songs, including an encore of four. It is testament to the sheer magnitude of their catalogue that just three of those songs are reprised tonight, and, as if to compensate for those coincidental recurrences, tonight’s set consists of 23 numbers instead and wow, what a glorious racket these boys make.
I talked about the band’s ability to surprise us even now, and if I’d attempted all night, I never would have predicted that they would start with American Band‘s finale, Patterson Hood’s heartfelt tribute to Robin Williams, ‘Baggage‘. It proved to be an extremely poignant opener, and one of many moments in which I suspect the hairs on the back of everyone’s necks well and truly made their presence known. This is swiftly followed by Mike Cooley’s ‘Ramon Casiano‘, a scathing attack on the NRA and the sickening stranglehold that it continues to hold over the American public. If anything, live, the impact of the message is magnified monumentally.
As you might expect, a good portion of tonight’s set is made up of tunes from last year’s astounding long player, with ‘Filthy & Fried‘ clearly already having been embraced as a firm crowd favourite, and ‘Ever South‘ providing the political platform from which Hood could publicly vent his spleen. Other than that, we revisit former glories (‘Ronnie & Neil‘, ‘Lookout Mountain‘) in spectacular fashion, whilst perhaps lesser championed tracks from the likes of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark come across like old friends we haven’t seen in a while and are long overdue a visit.
Despite the absence of anything from Pizza Deliverance, The Big To Do or Go-Go Boots, tonight’s show was a sensational nod back to each chapter of their career to date, culminating with a blistering rendition of ‘Hell No I Ain’t Happy‘ that contained within a version of ‘Sign O’ The Times‘ as a sincere homage to Prince amongst last year’s other fallen idols. Seriously classy, endlessly ebullient and ultimately triumphant, there is simply no better live act in the world right now, and if you still haven’t latched on to that, I can only pity you.
PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Reno
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