Patterson Hood’s singing a song that wonders who’d drive his car, listen to his tapes, play his music, after he’s thrown himself off Lookout Mountain.
His band is pounding out an ominous rhythm but his players look oddly upbeat. It’s dark, dangerous material typical of the Drive-By Truckers, who spent a good three hours Saturday night trying to deafen everybody within 20 yards of the stage at The Fillmore in San Francisco.
Hood adores his material, plainly lives to get up on a stage and share it at extreme volume. It feels so good he never stops smiling.
Even when he’s singing about suicide. Or that song about a musician who’s dying of AIDS and can’t stop now because he’s got another show to do.
The crowd eats this stuff up. I’m no different. By the end I’m shouting along to a rousing chorus of “shut your mouth and get your ass on the plane.” The plane will crash, killing the leaders of a popular rock band. We know this, we scream along anyway. After all, the song’s operative line is “living in fear’s just another way of dying before your time.”
The strange magic of the Drive-By Truckers is their ability to write murder ballads with jet-blast rhythms and piercing, rapid-fire guitar solos that make their fans feel good about the experience of hearing them. They pull it off because their songs about death are really songs about life, that is, why it’s worth living flat-out till your last breath. Sure, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy to us in the mortgage-paying masses, but the Truckers give us a few hours of escape.
The Truckers’ songs would not be mistaken for escapism, though. They’re usually about people trying to hold onto a few scraps of dignity in a world that’s given ’em the shiv. Can’t help wanting to root for people who just keep hanging in there. These aren’t always nice people, but they do have a story to tell.
The Truckers, who traveled out here from their base in Athens, Ga., have filled their records with songs about forgotten Southerners (and a few remembered ones, like George Wallace and Lynyrd Skynyrd). Hood’s voice is scratchy and hard to listen to sometimes, which deepens the effect of his stories, whether they’re about trying to get out of a town called Buttholeville or wondering why everybody in his town is coming down with cancer.
It’d be enough to have one guy in this band writing these Southern gothic songs, but the Truckers have three of ’em. One of his cohorts is a gaunt guitar ace named Mike Cooley, who’s been writing and performing with Hood for 20 years; his baritone could pass for a punked-up Merle Haggard. The other is a baby-faced, 20something guitar ace named Jason Isbell who joined the Truckers a few years ago and wrote one of their signature songs in his first week with the band.
Isbell’s song was “Decoration Day,” title cut from the band’s 2003 album. It takes the perspective of a guy whose family’s been feuding with another clan for god knows how long. His dad instructs him to beat a son of the rival family, “but don’t dare let him die.” Some kind of macho signal sending, I suppose; the payback: seeing his dad murdered on the front porch of his home. The crowd sings along, roaring, whistling and clapping out its approval at the end.
“Decoration Day” was the third song the Truckers played Saturday. It had the same lyrics, same licks, same personnel as the studio recording, but the live version seems to hit with twice the force, and not just because of it’s so loud the bass drum is inflating my windbreaker. Part of me wonders, why play such listenable songs at near-unlistenable decibel levels? But another part of me — the one that bought earplugs just in case, the one that decided 30 seconds after the music started that earplugs at this concert will be like sex with a condom — craves the ear-crunching, chest thumping bigness of the Truckers’ live show. My ears’ll be ringing for days and I’ll use those earplugs the next time I see these folks; after all, earplugs are prophylactics for the ear canals, with similar benefits.
As I’m watching the band, I’m also watching the crowd. For awhile I stand behind a tall young woman who’s head is bobbing slightly in tune with the band. Seems kind of non-committal and I wonder: how can you have a mild reaction to the Truckers? I feel like there are two choices: fleeing the premises or shaking one’s fists and booty with mad abandon.
Later, near the end of the show, I’m standing next to a guy who has no expression on his face at all. The band’s searing three-guitar attack leaves him totally unmoved. Maybe the woman I noticed before was just shy about shaking her thing in public. But this guy has no thing to shake, at least for the Truckers. What’s that about?
By the time the Truckers have finished their second set of encores, everybody in the room is flat worn out. The houselights come up and we’re thankful for the rest. It’s sort of a natural reaction to the full-tilt sound of the Truckers — for the last 90 minutes its one song after another building up to blazing crescendos, any one of which would close the show for a lesser band. But the Truckers keep on, well, driving.
I walk out of the Fillmore feeling a bit like I feel after a long, invigorating hike. Tired, a bit sore perhaps, but satistifed in the experience of getting to the end of something worth doing.