Lineup changes fuel the Drive-By Truckers' fire at Tipitina's Sunday night.
The last time The Drive-By Truckers played Tipitina's, I was worried about their future. The two-night stand couldn't shake a gray mood, partly because singer Patterson Hood had injured his hand and instead of playing guitar, he could only sing and figure out what to do with himself during the instrumental sections. The generally dark material from Go-Go Boots that they were touring didn't help, but musically the band was heavy in the worst way. Centromatic's Will Johnson took Hood's place in the band's three-guitar lineup that, along with keyboards, had come to feel bloated and rhythmically lumbering. At the time, I wondered if I was watching a band start the slow trudge to the tar pits.
Last night, the band onstage at Tipitina's was none of that. In the intervening time, they lost bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist John Neff, and the changes gave the band room to rage. Tucker has been replaced on this tour by Matt Patton, and the band's keyboardist Jay Gonzales splits his time between keys and the third guitar that, last night suggested, was a bit of shtick that had overstayed its welcome. The space left by one fewer instrument made it possible for the guitars to be rawer and noisier, and with one fewer instrument to get in sync, they were rhythmically punchier than they've been in a while. Even stomping tracks like "Lookout Mountain" and "Where the Devil Won't Stay" moved with rock power and purpose instead of dinosaur weight.
The changing roles clearly affected the sound. Patton's bass was the lead instrument on "Used to Be a Cop," and it moved with a Police-like assurance, so much so that one guitar chimed in with an Andy Summers-like tone. During "Mean Old Highway," the song's solo went to Gonzales on the organ instead of one of the guitars. Hood and Mike Cooley were clearly enjoying the way the band sounded, which led to some of Cooley's more animated vocals in recent years.
The renewed vigor wasn't a byproduct of more carefree times. A sign on the stage read, "We love you Craig," referencing long-time member of the DBT family Craig Lieske, whose passing on January 18 the band is still feeling deeply. Mortality raised its head late in the set when Hood dedicated "The Living Bubba" not to Gregory Dean Smalley for whom it was written, but Earl Maddox, who is suffering with colon cancer. He was friend of Smalley's and played in Grayson Capps' Stumpknockers among other bands - "a fuckin' true rocker," Hood declared.
Death has been a part of The Drive-By Truckers' story since 2001's Southern Rock Opera tied them to Lynyrd Skynyrd's story, and a downside of aging - particularly in rock 'n' roll - is that the passings come with increasing frequency. Their songs and sound present a way of dealing with that knowledge. Lyrically, they do their best to understand what they can about it - the whys, hows, and how people deal with it - while celebrating the time they have by making a big rock noise. Last night was a reminder of how powerful - and how much fun - that noise can be.