“‘Nine Bullets’!” yelled a man in a flannel shirt near the end of Drive-By Truckers’ set at The Space at Westbury Theater Friday night.
He was referring to the second track on the Truckers’ 1999 album Pizza Deliverance, a yowling, howling fantasy about gunning down your condescending peer group and immediate family.
Co-leader Patterson Hood, the author of the tune, shook his head lovingly. “Man, I can’t be singing songs about killing my family,” he retorted. “I’ve got kids and shit.”
As far as homicide glorification, the uproarious “Nine Bullets” might lean moreso toward The Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” than Eminem’s “Stan.” However, this moment was telling. Drive-By Truckers may have introduced themselves to the world in 1998 with rowdy, puerile and deceptively smart songs about no-counts and ne’er-do-wells, but their recent shows display a twenty-year-old rock & roll institution with a growing conscience.
28-year-old Portland, OR, songwriter Kyle Craft, a fresh Sub Pop Records signee opened the show and his songs are sharp and well-written dispatches from the Trump era. At times, Craft would overreach, losing the crowd during the oversung piano ballad “California Kind of Blue.” But his overall vibe was of a winningly ambitious kid with a kickin’ band, buzzed on the sounds of Bowie, T. Rex, and Beatle John in equal measure.
The Truckers were next, setlist-free and wasting no time. “Good evening, wherever the hell we are,” quipped co-leader Mike Cooley before launching into “Filthy And Fried,” one of his contributions to 2016’s great American Band. What followed was a 22-song Rock Show (capital letters, as their cult deems their concerts) that spanned the Truckers’ formidable songbook. Highlights were everywhere: the longest, doomiest “Puttin’ People On The Moon” I’d ever seen! A surprise appearance of the Pizza Deliverance deep cut “Love Like This”! But the classics remain resilient, especially Cooley’s magical, personal “Zip City.” As far as the newer material, it more than holds up live: Hood’s stormy new song “Baggage” deals with his recent overcoming of chronic depression with remarkable candor and heart.
We may have been only twenty miles from Manhattan, but a typically New York crowd this was not. Instead; it was one of the politest audiences I’d ever joined — mostly older men and women, flannel-clad and singing along to the tunes old and new. If you were checking out the Truckers for the first time, you might suspect this demographic would also be into Toby Keith. But from the proud Black Lives Matter banner on Jay Gonzales’ organ to the righteous, progressive subject matter, this is a different ballgame than your uncle’s “southern rock.” Even if you’re not gonna get “Nine Bullets,” the poetic “Guns of Umpqua” (written about a tragic school shooting in Oregon) is more than a maturation from the past — it’s a cold-water-jet.
But all things considered, this is still a Truckers show, and the point is powerful, whip-crack rock & roll from America’s best. No gimmicks, no tricks, just world-class songwriting.
For those DBT-curious and willing to make it out to a Rock Show: expect to feel included, welcomed and lucky to hear one of rock ‘n roll’s finest crews at the height of its powers.