The Drive-By Truckers’ newest live release, It’s Great To Be Alive!, showcases a band both embracing and resisting their Southern heritage with uncommon nuance and sensitivity—a hallmark feature of the group’s nearly 20-year career made even more noticeable in a live setting as storied as San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. Yes, the southern gothic imagery is plentiful, and Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s unaffected twang is difficult to miss, but the band’s music has always approached their Southern identities with a sophistication that belies easy stereotype or knee-jerk dismissal. Cooley and Hood, along with long-time drummer Brad Morgan and newer members Jay Gonzalez and Matt Patton, play big, brawling rock n’ roll that is as heavy and punishing as their song’s subject matter.
But don’t let the roaring guitars and bruising riffs fool you. There is an underlying sensitivity in these songs, particularly those written and sung by Cooley, that offer such contemplative turns-of-phrase that listeners quickly toss aside any reluctances they might harbor about the genre of Southern rock.
A song like “Women Without Whiskey” seems at first glance to be yet another song about a Southern man done in by alcohol, but lyrics like “won’t you read my lips if I pull you near enough, won’t you read my fortune in the bottom of this coffee cup” suggest a more complicated narrative—a man left directionless and in dire need of a woman’s steadying presence, an admission of vulnerability that doesn’t easily resolve itself. These are deeply flawed characters with troubled backstories that might devolve into cliche if it weren’t for the Truckers’ sympathetic touches, always careful not to condescend to their subject matter but never shying away from their characters’ self-destructing tendencies.
These Southern poetics might not be fully appreciated if it wasn’t for the band’s presentation and playing, which stomps along with a Stonesy swagger and sprawling messiness that is wonderfully and beautifully sloppy. Songs like “Marry Me,” “Gravity’s Gone,” and “Three Dimes Down” are screaming anthems, while others like Hood’s lovely Southern-soul inspired ballad “Mercy Buckets” benefit from Gonzalez’s punchy low-key horn arrangement, a lovely embellishment that recalls a Muscle Shoals recording session.
Hood’s “Runaway Train,” a song written nearly 30 years ago, is perhaps the album’s standout; it’s singalong chorus and Cooley’s ascending guitar solo nicely transition to “A Ghost to Most,” a track from Cooley that proves his deft ear for melody and hook. While there are lots of punishing electric guitars on this album, “First Air of Autumn” sees the group embracing a softer, acoustic side, with Morgan’s light shuffle propelling Cooley’s lyrics, which are full of nostalgia, melancholy, remembrance, and misrememberance.
These songs take awhile to unpack themselves because these characters are trying so hard to find themselves against all odds, to figure out a way of surviving, of staying afloat against gravity’s pull, to not be laid low by their vices and unholy pursuits. Over the course of a 3+ hour live album, the Truckers give their audience plenty of time to decide which of these characters deserve their sympathies and pleas for redemption. It’s this ambiguity that makes the group’s work so fulfilling and enriching. Put simply, this is a truly astonishing album, an affirmation of the band’s continued relevance and a bold, evocative declaration that, despite the whiskey, women, and heartbreak, it’s pretty great to be alive.
Recommended If You Like: Lucero, The Bottle Rockets, The Hold Steady, Blitzen Trapper