Drive-By Truckers. Alabama Shakes. Red Rocks. 08.16.15
Let’s start this out with some statistics. Drive-By Truckers have been a band for 19 years. Patterson Hood turned 50 last year and Mike Cooley has 13 months until he hits that milestone. Before last night, they had performed at Red Rocks 0 times. (edit – DBT actually opened for The Black Crowes on 08.12.06) I have been a fan of the band for 11 years. I have seen them perform 14 times over the past 10 years. I have also seen Jason Isbell 6 times. And I’ve caught Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley doing solo shows at Larimer Lounge twice each. Last year I proved my ultimate dedication by traveling to Florence, Alabama to see Hood, Isbell and Cooley perform a benefit for Terry Pace. By the time Drive-By Truckers walked onto the stage at Red Rocks, for the
1st 2nd time in their career, I had chalked up 24 DBT-related shows. Seeing them perform at my favorite venue, with a group of friends (some of whom I’ve known for over 30 years) was the perfect way to celebrate my 25th. It was a cool, but relatively dry night in Morrison and it was the ultimate concert-going experience. It was also one of the best Drive-By Truckers shows I’ve seen.
I know the old-school fans are already calling bullshit, so let me preface this review with a few things. Nothing will ever compare to the Southern trilogy. Nothing will ever top the whiskey-soaked era of Isbell. I can still smell the stench of hard work while Hood was screaming about ‘people who died’ in sweltering clubs across the country. I can still see the handle of Jack Daniels being passed around as if it contained the elixir of eternal youth, while every member of the band kissed the bottle with the hunger of an ex-con after a long stretch in prison. The destructive force of that earlier crew was a sight to behold, and I’ll always remember those shows fondly, but they were never built to last. “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” Patterson Hood worked hard for his dream team, but when you have that much talent in one band it becomes hard to control. As soon as they struck that first match, the future was inevitable. The Drive-By Truckers were incinerated by their own fire. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, they came back as something else. The band that opened for Alabama Shakes last night held very little resemblance to the band I saw in San Francisco a decade ago. But like that band, they were on a mission to prove themselves.
I held onto a slight hope that Jason Isbell (who had just performed in Lyons the night before) might join the Truckers at Red Rocks, but I wasn’t all that surprised when he was a no-show. Isbell will always be the lost voice for anyone who has been a fan of the band for a long time, but he’s not the only missing Trucker — the absence of Shonna and Neff has been felt for a few years now as well. It took a little time for Jay Gonzalez to solidify himself as a true member, and I had an extremely hard time with Matt Patton when he joined on bass, but I should have never doubted Patterson Hood. Change is always hard, especially when you’ve followed a band like family, but change can be good as well. The Drive-By Truckers made use of a beyond sold-out crowd at the most iconic venue in the United States to show the world that while the whiskey might not be flowing like wine anymore, there is literally nothing missing from their sound. As Hood, Cooley and Patton came together in a small circle center-stage, guitars blazing a path to the people in the cheap seats, they made a declaration that was impossible to ignore. Taking a cue from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, they decided not to dwell on their surroundings. Who needs to talk about a venue when you can rock the hell out of it instead!
The set opened with “Tornados”, as if tempting the unpredictable Colorado weather, but there was only a slight drizzle as Hood took us back to the Northern Alabama of his youth. Sporting blue jeans, boots and black blazers, the elder statesmen took turns at the mic through a variety of selections old and new. “Gravity’s Gone”, “Lookout Mountain”, “Get Downtown”, “Sink Hole” and “Uncle Frank” were all performed before a word was spoken to the massive crowd. Patton proved he’d earned himself a spot as a permanent Trucker by doing what he does best…providing Hood and Cooley with powerful basslines. He also proved that he’s learned his place in the band. Every once in a while one of those goofy grins would peek out from under his bangs, but the days of grandstanding are (thankfully) behind him. I’d even go as far as to say that he’s a better bassist than Shonna was. Brad Morgan was perched up on his kit (in a white suit) as he kept everything in time, just as Jay kept to the side doing all the things he does to add a little flavor to the southern storytelling. The first spoken words of the night came when Hood introduced “Pauline Hawkins”. He let the audience know that the song was inspired by a novel called “The Free” by Willy Vlautin. He also introduced “Alabama’s Stroker Ace” before Cooley stepped up for “Shit Shot Count”. And the round-robin format continued from there on out.
Cooley put emphasis on “no place I’d rather be” during “Marry Me” before Hood name-dropped Colorado in “A Word of Hurt”. “First Air of Autumn” was extremely appropriate considering the fall-like weather, as was the closer, “Grand Canyon”. That last song from the latest album has replaced Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” ever since Craig Lieske passed away. The song was dedicated to friends who couldn’t be there, but as Hood mentioned, Lieske was probably with us in his own way. As it digressed into a jam session, with Hood on his knees, I thought back to my last conversation with the man. He wore curly grey hair, a funny hat and striped jacket as we spoke about life on the road in front of the Aggie Theatre in Ft. Collins. He was so much more than just a merch man. He was a friend to all.
The show was streamed live on TourGigs, so I watched the loop this afternoon. It’s funny the things you notice after the fact. There was one point, while Cooley was singing, that the camera focused on Patterson. He was just looking up in awe. It seemed he might burst into tears as the Rocks reflected in his eyes. In reality, all he was seeing was a bunch of people between two monoliths, but you could tell he was seeing much more than that. He was literally looking at his own success. Drive-By Truckers will probably never be any bigger (or smaller) than they are today, so performing for almost ten thousand people (all on their feet singing along) at Red Rocks had to have been a dream come true.
Lieske’s image was still in my head as Morgan, Gonzales and Patton kept the music going long after the original Truckers had taken their leave. It was a historic night for everyone involved…and that is why it was one of the best Truckers shows I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t a dream setlist. It wasn’t as exciting as the debaucherous shows in San Francisco. And I’ll always miss Isbell. But it was one of the most important shows they had ever performed and you could feel it. Patterson Hood posted a selfie of himself today. He was holding the commemorative piece of The Rock that is bestowed upon every act that plays the venue. The caption read “One of my all time favorite nights ever.” I couldn’t agree with him more. If I had to explain how the night made me feel in five words or less, I’d have to quote the man himself. “It’s fucking great to be alive!”
Alabama Shakes have come a long way from the Fox Theatre in Boulder. A big group of us went to that show for my birthday in 2012. The theater barely survived their sound. Brittany Howard was a force to be reckoned with back then and somehow she’s only grown stronger. It was only a few months after that Boulder show that she brought the Shakes to Red Rocks to open for Crazy Horse. She struggled a bit on the large stage during that show. Whether it was the pressure to impress the over-capacity crowd, opening for the legendary Neil Young, or just playing the venue itself, she refused to make eye contact with the reality in front of her. It was still a great show, but it didn’t live up to the expectations she set at the Fox. She’s had time to find her confidence though. Headlining huge festivals, releasing a new (extremely experimental) album that pushes the boundaries of their revivalist sound, and learning how to deal with a certain level of fame has transformed Howard into something more than just a strong voice…she is now a professional performer. And her band has risen to the task of backing her up.
Alabama Shakes mixed the entire Sound & Color album with a heavy dose of Boys & Girls, resulting in the intoxication of thousands. The four-piece band expanded to eight with the addition of keys and backup singers. The wind had died down, so their sound was nothing less than perfect. The color could have been better though. Half the fun of seeing Alabama Shakes is watching Howard distort her face while belting out the blues, but the lighting people were more focused on making her look good on the big screen (and to those pay-per-viewers at home) than to those of us who were close enough to actually see her. Her flower print dress was the only thing visible, as her face was shroud in dark shadows the entire night. That’s just a small complaint though, because the vocals coming from the shadows were powerful enough to make you forget about anything else. A play-by-play would be useless here, because the Shakes are something you have to feel to appreciate, but I will say that “Miss You” (I’m yours! I’m yours! I’m yours!), “Gimmie All Your Love” (the wind picked up to answer her call during that one), “Be Mine” and “Don’t Wanna Fight” were all highlights of my night.
“Miss You” was a thank you to the Muscle Shoals sound that gave birth to Drive-By Truckers, but the proper thank you came when Howard referred to them as “our brothers”, adding that she’s always “looked up to them.” Howard realized that it was almost unfair to have Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley open for Alabama Shakes. If things were based on level of effort and time on the road, the set times would have been reversed. But that’s not the way things work (and life isn’t fair), so it was nice that she acknowledged the Truckers’ place as influencers. That being said, Alabama Shakes have become a seasoned group of professional musicians that had every right to be headlining Red Rocks. They closed the night with “Over My Head”. As Howard kept repeating the chorus to that song, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was thinking about what it was like to open for Crazy Horse. If so, she didn’t show it. Which makes sense, because being in over her head isn’t something she has to worry about anymore.
Shit Shots Count
The Company I Keep
A World of Hurt
First Air of Autumn
Rise to the Sun
Gimme All Your Love
On Your Way
Don’t Wanna Fight
Sound & Color
You Ain’t Alone
Over My Head