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Monday, Oct. 4, 2010

Drive-By Truckers @ The Pabst Theater

Oct. 1, 2010

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If the phrase “salt of the earth” could describe any band, it would be the Drive-By Truckers—one of those rare groups that manage to exude authenticity and humility at the same time. So it was appropriate that the Athens, Ga.-based band was tapped to officially kick off Farm Aid, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this weekend at Miller Park. Like those Farm Aid champions, the Truckers keep their heads down, work hard and turn out amazing products on an almost yearly basis.

The group brought this same mind-set to a packed Pabst Theater Friday evening. Kicking off with the rousing “Wednesday” (from 2006’s A Blessing and a Curse), the Drive-By Truckers powered through a set that sampled songs from the group’s 12-year history. And while a Truckers show was once mainly a showcase for the work of singer/guitarist Patterson Hood, Friday’s set list revealed just how far fellow singer/guitarist Mike Cooley has come as a songwriter in his own right. Hood had his moments with “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” (from 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark) and Gangstabilly’s “The Living Bubba.” But Cooley more than held his own with songs like “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” (off of 2004’s The Dirty South) and “Birthday Boy” (from the band’s latest album, 2010’s The Big To-Do).

Perhaps because of the nature of the evening, Hood’s “Sink Hole” (from 2003’s Decoration Day) hit particularly hard. “I’ve always been a religious man, I’ve always been a religious man,” Hood sang as he told the story of a small farmer facing foreclosure, “but I met the banker and it felt like sin, he turned my bailout down.” And while the night never lost its festive atmosphere, one couldn’t help but think that Hood’s words applied to more than just farmers in 2010.

“Sink Hole” and Cooley’s “When the Pin Hits the Shell” served as powerful reminders of the continued relevance of the band’s Decoration Day, which has aged well. Yet the two songs also illustrated how the band misses former guitarist/songwriter Jason Isbell, who joined the group for the recording of Decoration Day, then left the band in 2007. The best of Isbell’s material provided an understated sense of place and detail that played nicely against Hood’s pathos and Cooley’s tales of rock-bottom drunks. Such approaches can get overwhelming, and Isbell’s work often provided a welcome respite. The songs offered by bassist Shonna Tucker, who has assumed Isbell’s place as the Truckers’ third songwriter, have yet to live up to the material of her predecessor.

But all was forgiven as the band tore into “Zip City” and “Let There Be Rock” (from their 2001 breakthrough, Southern Rock Opera). One gets the sense that this record still has a special place in the band’s collective heart, and the group continues to play these songs with unrestrained joy. Here’s to another 25 years for Farm Aid, and another 12 for the Truckers.

Photo by CJ Foeckler
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