Live from Austin TX
With a name that sounds more like a joke they've outgrown with each passing year and a willingness to assume the voice of the frankly damaged and lower class in their songs, the Drive-By Truckers haven't earned a reputation as an especially smart band, fine as their body of work has been. But if you want to get a clear picture of just how sharp this band really is, picking up Live from Austin TX will do the trick. The album was recorded during a September 2008 taping of the long-running PBS music series Austin City Limits, and you might expect that a band as rowdy and hard rockin' as the DBTs would roll in and blow the doors off the joint. But it turns out they're more clever than that, and this set carefully builds from the low-key opening of "Perfect Timing" and "Heathens" through the working-class rage of "Three Dimes Down" and "Puttin' People on the Moon" to the rave-up finale of "Let There Be Rock" and "Marry Me" that gives joyous release to the broad array of emotions and ideas that cross the stage. Patterson Hood is usually said to be the Drive-By Truckers' leader, but this set gives Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker room to shine bright before the lead vocal mike, and the ensemble playing of this band is something to see, especially John Neff's tasteful pedal steel and guitar work, Jay Gonzalez's subtle but perfectly punctuated keyboards, and Brad Morgan's strong and imaginative drumming. When Hood, Cooley, and Neff lock their guitars together, they can summon up enough power to rival their boyhood heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd without suggesting they're mimicking them, and while "18 Wheels of Love" clearly dates from this band's pre-Southern Rock Opera juvenilia period, Hood's long spoken intro is the work of a master showman. ("The Living Bubba," also included here, is a much stronger tune from the band's early days and one of the few first-rate rock songs about AIDS and its consequences.) Simply put, Live from Austin TX is a terrific show from one of the best and bravest American bands at work today, and the truth is you can't make music this good if you're not pretty smart -- listen and you'll see.