Photography by Sasha Geffen

Playing two or more nights at the same venue presents a unique opportunity for musicians, and it’s up to them how they use it. I once caught The New Pornographers twice in a row at The Metro back in 2007, and they chose to perform a nearly identical setlist on each night, despite having four great albums to pull from. I’ll admit, there’s something to be said for that approach — expertly curating a batch of songs, then delivering it to the maximum number of people possible — but for those of us who attended both evenings, it also felt like kind of a letdown. Neko Case went as far to keep some of her stage banter the same, making a joke at each show about how she saw a ghost haunting the wings. The whole thing felt repetitive and uncomfortably surreal. At least they played well.

Given their loose planning (they rarely rehearse or plot out a setlist), wealth of material (10 studio albums, a B-sides collection, and a handful of EPs), and general Southern doggedness, I didn’t expect such a well-manicured residency from the Drive-By Truckers when they played Thalia Hall this past Friday and Saturday. But the variety between the two shows went far beyond the songs they played, although they certainly did deliver on that front — out of the 46 tunes, only four (all of them co-frontman Mike Cooley’s) were repeated.

No, what really separated the concerts was their wildly different expressions of grief. You all know what I’m talking about: the terrorist attacks in Paris happened on Friday night, mere hours before the Truckers took the stage. It might seem far-reaching or exploitative to bring that up in an American concert review, but considering the deadliest of the assaults took place at another rock show on that very night, it’s also unavoidable. Imagine if you’re a musician gearing up to take the stage, and you get the news that 87 people got slaughtered at an Eagles of Death Metal show. It’s going to be on your mind. It was on Jordan Dreyer’s mind out in California, and it was on Patterson Hood’s mind, too.

The good thing about a rock concert is that it’s just about the best place on the planet to stay in the moment, to forget about anything in your own life that’s bothering you, which is part of why the Paris attacks are so fucking sad. And if there’s any band who views the dive bar, music club, amphitheater, and stadium as holy ground, as a temple where rock ‘n’ roll actually lives up to the cliche of saving people who want to be saved, it’s the Drive-By Truckers. So when they took the stage on Friday, they seemed more than a little somber — heads bowed slightly as they traded off swigs of Tequila Herradura. “Love and prayers for our friends in Paris,” said Hood as he held up the horse-emblazoned bottle before drummer Brad Morgan went into the kick-snare-kick thud of “Tornadoes”. Once Cooley and multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez stormed in with their guitars, the drape behind them fell to unveil a huge matte painting of the English Oceans artwork.

From that triumphant reveal onward, every song took on a ferocity that seemed to be fighting against the solemn emotional climate around the globe. Cooley snuck some additional ghostly wails into “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”, Hood got extra dirty during the penultimate verse of “Steve McQueen”, and bassist Matt Patton moved like some puckish hybrid of scarecrow and jack-in-the-box throughout it all, grimacing cartoonishly during the stompers (“Women Without Whiskey”, “Zip City”) and laughing his ass off whenever the band veered into power-pop territory (anything from A Blessing and a Curse). By the end of the main set, the music wasn’t a funereal head-bow, but a middle finger flipped at senseless violence.

This was especially true of the encore. The haunted slow-burn of “Angels and Fuselage” seemed poised to be the final song, but as the guitars rang out their final drone, Cooley interrupted with his baritone growl, snapping the band into the more rollicking “Shut Up and Get on the Plane”. Anyone well-versed in the Truckers’ music know that these two songs close out Southern Rock Opera, sonically depicting the plane crash that took the lives of most of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977. Only on the album, they’re performed in reverse order, with the rockabilly bounce of “Shut Up” melting into the sadder, molasses-slow “Angels”.

Now, I’m sure DBT has performed them the other way around before, but I couldn’t help but think the flip was a conscious decision on Friday, a symbolic resurrection of Ronnie Van Zandt and the Gaines siblings that also served as a giant fuck-you to death. In further rebellion, the band closed out the night with their speed-freak take on The Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died”. A roadie took over Hood’s guitar so he could get right in the audience’s faces, yowling and sweating and swearing and passing the mic so everyone could blurt out the chorus. Maybe I’m giving the band too much credit. Maybe I’m selfishly projecting my own feelings about the attacks — attacks that affected others much more severely and tragically than me — onto their performance. But I can’t help but think that they were weighing heavily on Hood’s mind, despite only mentioning them once at the top of the show. I can’t help but think he was furiously working through something up on that stage.

If Friday was all energy and anger, Saturday was the more introspective comedown, the acceptance stage of grief. I don’t say that to diminish the tragedy or imply that anyone directly affected by it is over it or will be over it any time soon (if ever). All I mean is that Hood seemed in a clearer headspace to talk about it. During an extended musical break of “Play It All Night Long” — DBT’s sincere reclamation of Warren Zevon’s satire of life in the South — he drove home the importance of, to borrow a phrase from another band the Truckers have toured with, staying positive.

“Been around the world,” he told the crowd. “Sometimes it ain’t pretty at all. Been to Paris, France, and it’s fucking beautiful. Sometimes you look at the news, and you wanna throw yourself against the wall. Not to sound all hippy-dippy or nothing, but try to love each other a bit.”

Improvised as it was, that heartfelt speech lay the groundwork for the rest of the set, which was packed with some of DBT’s more life-affirming songs. “The Living Bubba” chronicles the last days of Gregory Dean Smalley, a musician who refused to stop playing shows even after being diagnosed with HIV; Hood wrote “The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town” as a gift for Cooley when the two weren’t speaking to each other, and “Let There Be Rock” is about rock ‘n’ roll literally and metaphorically saving Hood’s life when he was a teenager.

Each of those works can be summed up even more succinctly by one of Hood’s favorite phrases: “It’s great to be alive,” he said to the audience before “Grand Canyon”, the final song of the encore. It wasn’t an advertisement for DBT’s latest live collection, but a mantra that’s just as relevant in the midst of tragedy as it is during better times, perhaps even more so. Pain, sadness, violence — it’s all a part of the journey. And even though Saturday’s quieter ending — the band members leaving the stage one by one until it was just Morgan on the drums — wasn’t as invigorating as Friday’s cowpunk finale, it was just as satisfying.

Setlist (November 13th):


Get Downtown

Feb 14

Where the Devil Don’t Stay

Sink Hole

First Air of Autumn

Ramon Casiano (new song)

Gravity’s Gone


Shit Shots Count

Steve McQueen

A Ghost to Most

Sandwiches for the Road

Women Without Whiskey

Dead, Drunk, and Naked

Guitar Man Upstairs

Puttin’ People on the Moon

Birthday Boy

Girls Who Smoke

Zip City

Angels and Fuselage

Shut Up and Get on the Plane

People Who Died (The Jim Carroll Band cover)

Setlist (November 14th):

72 (This Highway’s Mean)

Ronnie and Neil

Made Up English Oceans

Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn (new song)

The Righteous Path

3 Dimes Down

Play It All Night Long (Warren Zevon cover)

Women Without Whiskey

The Living Bubba

A Ghost to Most

Goode’s Field Road

Where the Devil Don’t Stay

The Company I Keep

Love Like This

The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town

Marry Me

Hell No, I Ain’t Happy

Let There Be Rock

Shit Shots Count

Lookout Mountain

Zip City

Grand Canyon

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