The Drive-By Truckers are a rarity in today's music climate: a band that hugs the road as if it were kin, touring any chance they get. They hit the pavement when they have a new album, or when they have a few festivals to play, or — in this case — when they have a batch of new songs to hone before heading into the studio.
The band played two nights in San Francisco on the mostly acoustic Dirt Underneath Tour, designed to debut new songs and tell stories behind the old ones. Despite the band's relative obscurity, the Drive-By Truckers — who hail from Alabama and South Carolina — have been touring for 10 years, building up a rabid following that comes out of the woodwork every time the band comes to town. I'm one of those fans, so
The DBT's are not casual concerts: The Truckers often play for three hours with two encores and cigarettes hanging from their lips, passing bottles of Jack Daniels back and forth. The Great American Music Hall show on Tuesday was no different, except that the music was acoustic and played sitting down.
While the Monday performance was merely ok, Tuesday night was totally transcendent. With the recent departure of Jason Isbell — one of the band's three guitarists and songwriters — the DBT have picked up two new members: John Neff on guitar and pedal steel, and recording legend Spooner Oldham on keyboards. Oldham was a bit off to say the least, but Neff was outstanding, rocking out with a sort of Zen-like calm.
The overall effect was like watching a band play from a big porch, complete with a beer cooler on stage. As usual, guitarist and vocalist Patterson Hood played the role of crowd charmer, telling laugh-out-loud yarns about DBT classics like "The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town." (He wrote it as a birthday gift for his right-hand man, Mike Cooley, DBT's other main guitarist/songwriter.)
Cooley's contribution, meanwhile, was a handful of excellent new songs, including the upbeat yet haunting "A Ghost to Most". Bassist Shonna Tucker and drummer Brad Morgan were tighter than ever, not to mention essential elements when the Truckers kicked into total rock assault. Particularly in the unhinged second half of the night, the band used its expertise to spike the energy of a roomful of strangers, prompting sing-alongs and giant grins. For the Drive-By Truckers, that's possible even with only acoustic instruments at their fingertips.