The Drive-By Truckers formed in Athens, Georgia in 1996 and at the first blush of a non-Southerner, the band looks like they’ve built a career off Americana songs about cars, girls and whiskey bars.
That’s sort of true, but the Drive-By Truckers have a more complicated message about Southerners to preach. Their 2016 album, American Band, focusses on topics like Black Lives Matter, mass shootings and institutional racism. They’re not the subjects that a UK listener might expect five middle-aged Southern men to sing about, but that seems to be the point.
The band came on stage to an almost full Roundhouse in Camden, assumed their stage poses and began with ‘Surrender Under Protest’ – the most obvious rallying cry from ‘American Band’.
Guitarist/singer Mike Cooley belted out verse lyrics – “does the colour really matter?
on the face you blame for failure” – before the whole band joined in for the chorus line: “compelled, but not defeated; surrender under protest if you must.”
With twenty years of tunes behind them, the band ripped through half-a-dozen Drive-By Truckers classics without breaking a sweat – comfortably mixing thoughtfully strummed ballads with wailing distorted guitar breakdowns. The two singers, Cooley and Patterson Hood, regularly changed up vocal duties. Each bringing their own version of singing with a Southern drawl.
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The highlights of the show came from their newer tunes, especially “Ramon Casiano” – a song about the man killed by the head of the National Rifle Association. This is simply because the band played the newer songs with more excitement and energy than the older ones.
Throughout the two hour show, the band covered most of the songs off ‘American Band’. Some of the more earnest ones worked to great effect.
Singer/guitarist, Patterson Hood began ‘Guns of Umpqua’ with an anecdote about moving his family from Georgia to Oregon. During the cross-country journey, they stopped at Umpqua, Oregon – a town that was the setting of a mass shooting days later.
The other was ‘Ever South’, a semi-autobiographical song about both Hood and the part of the country he comes from. The mid-tempo ballad falls exasperatedly into variations of the same chorus line, like “bash our heads against the future, ever South”.
The band played until the 11pm curfew, ignoring the ceremony of leaving the stage only to be called back for an encore. The long run-time looked to tire some of the audience, but they were reinvigorated by the closer – Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’, complete with a chant of ‘R-E-S-I-S-T’.