On the upcoming "It's Great to Be Alive!," The Drive-By Truckers revisit the '70s tradition of elongated live albums.
The Drive-By Truckers made their name with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, but for a few years it seemed like Southern Rock Soap Opera couldn’t be far behind. With the exception of DBT lifers Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and long-time drummer Brad Morgan, the band’s lineup has always been in some kind of flux. From the mid-2000s until a few years ago, those changes threatened to weigh the band down. When one bassist left/got the boot, the Truckers brought in guitarist Jason Isbell’s wife Shonna Tucker. When their relationship went bad, he was out. By the time of the recording sessions for The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots—cut at the same time in 2009—the band’s relationship with Tucker and guitarist John Neff had become toxic as well.
The Drive-By Truckers play The Joy Theater Saturday night, but in 2011, the Truckers played two unusually joyless nights at Tipitina’s, where for the first time the band often lumbered onstage. Hood seemed ill at ease because he had broken his hand and didn’t know what to do with himself onstage without a guitar. “I don’t think anybody had much fun in the last several years during that period,” he told My Spilt Milk in 2014.
When they parted ways with Tucker and Neff, the Truckers opted against refreshing the then-seven member band and got down to a svelte five members with Matt Patton on bass and Jay Gonzales splitting time between guitar and keyboards. That lineup played Tipitina’s in 2014 and regained the band’s heavyweight punch without the heavy weight. That lineup is also behind the upcoming It’s Good to Be Alive!, a three-disc/five-lp live album that will be out October 30. I’d argue it’s too long, but I feel that way about the band’s shows too. Hood and Cooley’s novelistic sensibilities mean they want to tell a full story with twists and turns, whether in a song, on an album, or in concert. It’s Good to Be Alive! honors that impulse, and the band is as sharp and agile on these recordings from The Fillmore in San Francisco as it was when it last played New Orleans. Fans may grouse about the omission of “Let There Be Rock,” but there’s no lack of rock on the album. Now as much as ever, The Drive-By Truckers let big, crunchy, distortion-rich electric guitars play the role of the joy of living in every narrative they tell.
In 2014, Hood quoted the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr., saying, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be," referring to the way the band came to be thought of as a southern rock band after telling the story of one on Southern Rock Opera. While It's Great to be Alive! features the band trying to put a little daylight between itself and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the big, multi-disc live album brings to mind live albums by Kiss, Rush, Yes, The Rolling Stones, naturally Peter Frampton, and countless others. The classic rock remains strong in the band.