History is slippery. What gets codified as heritage and what is waved off as irrelevant to where we are now isn’t just about whose set of facts calcifies into the oversimplified stories we tell ourselves. It’s got plenty to do with how those stories get passed down, eroded and distorted by time, and even more to do with what gets left out of the first draft and every subsequent revision.
Few bands have attempted to reframe the 20th-century American experience—particularly the poor-to-working-class, white, Southern experience—with more consistency, creativity and clarity than the Drive-By Truckers. And if you’re of the opinion that the band’s best work coincided with the transition from that century to this one, their performance at The Queen in Wilmington would only confirm that bias.
You might’ve thought the show got off to a slow start with a few midperiod numbers or been confused about the fist-pumping “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” (from 2003’s Decoration Day) coming fourth in the lineup when it’s generally a pretty good sign that the night is nearly at its end. But for the last quarter of the two-hour set, as Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood and their tireless band barreled through “Uncle Frank” and “The Company I Keep” (both from 1999’s Pizza Deliverance) into “Zip City,” “Let There Be Rock,” “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” and “Angels and Fuselage” (all from 2001’s Southern Rock Opera), Drive-By Truckers could do no wrong.
Masterfully closing without an encore—Cooley and Hood leaving the stage together while drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Matt Patton and multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez offered up a coda before taking off one by one—they both lived up to and subverted very specific expectations built over decades of solid touring and shifting configurations, which have stabilized since the addition of the eternally grinning Patton nearly a decade ago.
And yet, that’s not the only version of the truth.
If, rather than looking back 20 years for the idealized band, you found the inadvertent political trilogy the Truckers released over the past five years to be among the most galvanizing artistic illustrations and indictments of the world we live in now—by turns somber and blazing, totally of the moment yet complex enough to transcend it—your feelings about the set might have been more ambiguous.
Drawing just three songs from January 2020’s barbed The Unraveling (“Slow Ride Argument,” “Grievance Merchants” and “Rosemary with A Bible And A Gun”) and one apiece from 2016’s American Band (“Filthy And Fried”) and October 2020’s The New OK (“Watching The Orange Clouds”), the band seemed so fatigued by the Trump era and its fallout that they nearly ignored it.
It’s an understandable impulse. Who isn’t exhausted by the slow sedition we’ve narrowly survived so far? Who doesn’t need need a deep breath and some time away from alarmist headlines? But the calamities and catastrophes we’ve adapted to—yes, even the folks who pretend to be “actively drinking” to lean into the mask-at-all-times loophole and the unvaccinated fan who reluctantly gave up his ticket outside The Queen after he finally accepted that he wasn’t going to get a rapid test in time to make it past security—are hardly over, however much we want them to be.
Whichever way the electoral calculus comes down next, the unraveling is still happening—and nothing comes close to the catharsis of hearing Hood howl the first draft of the history we’re living through and experiencing one of the only bands that’s capable of capturing our cultural heritage in near real time.
Opener Buffalo Nichols offered some reframed history of his own with present-day riffs on the blues that leaned into the depths of collective and personal anguish, while his impressive slide skills tugged a little harder on the heartstrings.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich