Let's start with dispelling the myth that Drive-By Truckers are a Southern-rock band. No. They are a rock band who happens to be from the South. I'm not sure how long it took Tom Petty to shake that regional association, and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels Band never did (though with a liberal use of the Stars 'n' Bars, they didn't try too hard, either). Nor shall we mention a particular distilled beverage that's popular when tag-teaming all things under the Mason-Dixon line, and the fact that lead songwriter Patterson Hood creates particularly pointed and poignant character vignettes doesn't automatically make him a Faulkner with a Les Paul in hand. Like all stereotypes, there's more than a grain of truth contained therein, but there's also so much more that's left unsaid or unexplored, and to call DBT Skynyrd II is a disservice. (To both bands, actually.)
The last time I saw the band was in 2008, on the Rock 'n' Roll Means Well tour. They co-headlined with the Hold Steady, and Hood was playing a shiny new gold Les Paul. Though they've spent 18 months away from my town, they have been no stranger to the road, as the distinct wear marks on the top of the guitar indicated. They've also aligned themselves with the influential ATO Records (headed by Dave Matthews, and whose roster includes My Morning Jacket and Rodrigo y Gabriela), with the new push culminating in recent appearances on David Letterman's and Jimmy Fallon's shows.
This new-found popularity was clearly demonstrated by the difference in venue size. The last time they headlined in Boston, they sold out the 600-person-capacity Paradise Rock Club. This time they wouldn't quite bang out the 2,500-capacity House of Blues, but there wasn't much empty space in the building. Their new record, The Big To-Do, is another strong record in their growing arsenal, and as expected they played a fair bit of it, including Mike Cooley's excellent "Birthday Boy," about an encounter with a hooker, and Shonna Tucker's sweet "(It's Gonna Be) I Told You So." It seems like they skipped the two best songs from the new record: "The Wig He Made Her Wear" and "After The Scene Dies."
However, they did dip generously into their other nine records, with a wide-ranging display of their two sides of the coin: pinning listeners to the floor via balls-out rockers (the brooding "Lookout Mountain" or a slightly reworked "Sinkhole," the story of revenge against a greedy banking system) or gently reaching out with ballads ("Love Like This," a hilarious "The Night GG Allin Came To Town" or the darkly comic "Nine Bullets," if a song about a mass killing could in fact be deemed funny). Other surprises for longtime fans included "Uncle Frank," a recounting of how the great push to modernize the landscape via the electric grid had a tragic impact on some; a heaping platterful of songs from Southern Rock Opera; and a raucous closing of Shakey's "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," which closed out the night.
Opener Langhorne Slim played a brand of folky rock that wasn't too far off from what I remember Steve Forbert doing in the '80s but suffered from a horribly boomy bass mix. Lucero, which was only on two nights of the tour, brought in enough guys to just about field a lacrosse team. Hailing from Memphis, the lessons of Stax/Volt were not ignored, and the three-piece brass section brought the swing to the rock. The band members were diverse in both race, age, and look, but they melded wonderfully to make some music that can stand proud in the shadow of Booker T and Otis Redding.