The Drive-By Truckers’ Southern discomfort

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by Jordan Green

If Southern music can still be claimed as a distinct regional idiom, then the Drive-By Truckers’ June 20 concert with Don Chambers at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem provided the clearest articulation of its past and future.

Don Chambers sang, “Barns will rust and rot; barns will grow back into the ground,” from the sixth track from his new album Disquietude.

The bleak redneck poetry of Chambers’ lyrics and the country & western trot rhythm supplied by drummer John Barner coupled with guitarist Lucas Kane’s collage of feedback loops and Eric Harris’ circuit-bent, pedal-driven Casio keyboard suggests a bar band in an isolated outpost of humanity set in the television drama “The Walking Dead.”

Despite the band’s industrial clangor and Chambers’ deadpan vocals, a sense of melody spirals out of the smoldering ruins of feedback that distinctly points back to “Freebird” and other cathartic Skynyrd imprints.

The Drive-By Truckers are clearly the link. The band’s path-breaking 2001 Southern Rock Opera album, a tribute to Lynyrd Skyrnrd that wrestled with Alabama’s troubled racial history, both redeemed Southern rock and liberated the genre from a cultural straitjacket.

This is a band with a history that demonstrates an epic sweep. Since the release of the critically acclaimed Southern Rock Opera, the Drive By-Truckers have only upped the quality quotient of their output. The band’s supple musical chemistry has provided a showcase for not only two great guitarists and songwriters, as with founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, but also a third for a period a third, during Jason Isbell’s mid-career run, not to mention songwriting contributions from former bass player Shonna Tucker.

No other band has married searing guitar solos with spoken-word reflection on life in America’s flyover territory so naturally or generously. Like the Grateful Dead before them, every single Truckers album has produced at least three or four songs that are instantaneously incorporated in the band’s live repertoire and embraced by longtime fans. Unlike the Dead, the Truckers don’t typically play covers, and their recorded output has been consistently good.

All that is to say that by necessity the band is faced with the immediate task of lowering expectations every time out. With the release of their 10th studio album, English Oceans, in March, the Truckers have pared down to essentially the original partnership of Hood and Cooley, with the departures of Tucker and guitarist John Neff. Rather than replace Neff, the new lineup has Jay Gonzalez handling both guitar and keyboard duties. Tucker’s exit leaves the band without a third songwriter for the first time in roughly a decade.

Anticipation for the Drive By-Truckers at Ziggy’s was palpable on June 20, and the crowd roared with approval when the band members took to the stage in evident good spirits. Carrying a bottle of Crown Royal, Hood stepped onto a riser and feinted a long jump across a chasm in front of the stage. Cooley looked resplendent in a silk shirt.

The band opened with one of Cooley’s contributions to the new album, the low-key, acoustic-tinged “First Air of Autumn.” The number set the tone for a concert showcasing an album in which Cooley carries an unprecedented share of the songwriting freight.

The new songs bristled with the same crackling dynamism as the best of the band’s work, albeit with a bit more restraint and understatement. Playing against Hood and Cooley’s seasoned status, Matt Patton, who has replaced Tucker, approached his bass with unbridled enthusiasm, eagerly complementing his fellow players. Hood displayed his customary generosity as he roamed the stage to play side by side with his band mates. Cooley liberally doled out stinging guitar solos with sparkling articulation, particularly on the new “Natural Light.”

Hood attacked “A World of Hurt” from 2006’s A Blessing and A Curse with evident relish. As a rare example of unironic redemption in the Truckers’ canon, the crowd responded with cheers and raised beers when Hood sang, “It’s a wonderful world if you can put aside the sadness/ And hang on to every ounce of beauty upon you.” Amidst multiple extended guitar solos couples made out and friends clinked beer cups, setting the stage for a spirited chant of “D-B-T” after the band left the stage.

The band launched into its encore set just before midnight with a song from English Oceans, cleverly bracketing a handful of classics between new songs to underscore their continuing relevance.

“Ronnie and Neil” from Southern Rock Opera provided a rare chill-bump moment in a show that was over all close to great. Chronicling a mythical feud between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zandt, the song boasts the biggest monster riff this side of “That Smell.”

It was the closest the band came to playing a Southern-rock anthem. Exhilarating as it was to experience, it felt a little weird in an audience that was overwhelmingly white, although fortunately no Confederate-flag imagery was evident in the crowd. The lack of diversity in the audience was a shame; the emergence of Alabama Shakes, a band with a biracial lead singer, in the past five years proves that the Southern rock idiom can be inclusive. But the conciliatory message behind “Ronnie and Neil” — the two were actually good friends who admired one another’s music — likely mitigated any latent feelings of Southern white chauvinism in the audience.

The band cleverly showcased two additional songs from Decoration Day, one each by Cooley and Hood, before closing with “Grand Canyon,” an elegy to the band’s late friend Craig Lieske, which concludes the new album.

Dignified, spacey and psychedelic, the song ended in a squall of feedback, signaling this is a band that won’t be confined to its past.