The band shed the last decade's tendency toward weightiness without losing its core social consciousness Saturday night.
The permission the Drive-By Truckers gave themselves to broaden their focus and work more intuitively on American Band extended to the current tour, where they’ve finally allowed themselves to pick up acoustic guitars. At Tipitina’s Saturday night, the Truckers knew how to back off as well as step on the gas, and they knew when to say when. The Springsteen-like marathons that took exasperating detours in years past were replaced by a relatively lean two-hour set that felt shorter. I didn’t value any of those traits when I started following the band after the release of 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, but on Saturday night, they made the Truckers one of my favorite bands again.
This band has been in the process of lightening up since bassist Matt Patton joined the band in 2012, but for much of the last decade, Patterson Hood’s songs felt like mid-career novels from a writer who made his mark early. They were smart, accurate and grumpy as they autopsied with remarkable precision the emotionally grinding lives of people who have little control over the forces that shape their lives. Mike Cooley’s songs became the ones you returned to because they were less bookish and delivered more rock ’n’ roll fun without sacrificing a sense of purpose. On Saturday, some of Hood’s weightier songs were left on the shelf, but the pointed commentary of American Band and the “Black Lives Matter” sign hung from the side of the organ rejuvenated others. Hood and Cooley have written with sympathy and gravity about the way that decisions that people with money make hammer the lives of those with less, and on Saturday the protest markers in the set shifted the emphasis from the sad, desperate lives to the wealthy bastards who made them that way.
The centerpiece in the set was a cover of John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” which has been America’s unsung battle cry since Trump’s election, and Hood made the song speak with new clarity. Lennon’s version, powerful as it is, comes from someone who’d been bigger than Jesus and who could shape his own reality. Generation X recorded a punk version that, while fun, dealt with simple binaries, but Hood’s drawl made the thought sound personal and elementary, as if every chorus could end with the line, “How fucking hard is that?”
“Gimme Some Truth” followed an equally apropos cover—The Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away”—sung by Matt Patton. The moment was obviously lighter and played for fun, as was much of the show—another recent development. The Truckers rearranged “The Righteous Path” to make it more sympathetic and less of a Johnny Cash/"I Walk the Line"-like exhibition of lonely self-denial. They even took some of the weight out of the monolithic “Lookout Mountain,” replacing some of the guitar crush with squeals of feedback. Cooley’s “Two Dimes Down” and “Shit Shots Count” reliably hit rock ’n’ roll sweet spots in their Exile on Main Street boogie, and when the band concluded with “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” in all its three-guitar glory, it felt like Tipitina’s united to give a glorious, shared middle finger to the White House and the cadre of power brokers, Wall Street insiders, and Mitch McConnell enablers who are working to make life more precarious for anyone outside their tax brackets. It’s hard to ask more of your rock ’n’ roll than that.