Drive-By Truckers -- Concert Review

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Drive-By Truckers like to play the new stuff on tour, and their show at the Avalon Hollywood fell in line. Good.

Because "The Big To-Do" is easily the group's best record since 2004's neo-classic "The Dirty South." And the new ones fit in like standards Friday, continuing the band's legacy of songs with gripping stories and perfectly matched music that usually work even better onstage.

Nine of the new album's 13 songs made the set, including five of the night's first six -- a nod to the band's confidence in them. (One of those, "Girls Who Smoke," is only on the vinyl edition of "To-Do"; remember when they used to put the bonus tracks on the CD?) But with material new or old, the Truckers were locked in, and they gave a 100-minute performance worthy of their lofty rep. Everything clicked.

Co-frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been playing together for a quarter-century and have a perfect yin/yang thing going: Both sing, write and play guitar, but Hood is more visually and vocally emphatic, hitting his knees and gesticulating, often singing like he's pleading his case to an unsympathetic jury; the stoical Cooley's idea of showmanship is a few Jimmy Page-via-Peter Buck guitar poses, but his delivery hits just as hard.

They traded doing lead vocals on nearly every other song -- bassist Shonna Tucker took the mic once for her new "(It's Gonna Be) I Told You So" -- and there's no doubt who the two stars are. But the Truckers showed their true band dynamic, going so far as to eschew the use of spotlights, even during solos.

Less country than in past shows, the sextet's sound swung from rumble to rave-up, with echoes of '70s Southern rock, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Creedence, the Band, R.E.M. and many others. But they sound exactly like no one, and their songs of the South are as far from zip-a-dee-doo-dah as can be -- rife with people struggling to get by, whether because of rotten circumstances or broken or unfulfilled promises.

The band has an uncanny way of melding its thick, guitar-heavy music with lyrics to create a sonic insight to its characters' plights. Angry Young-like licks permeated the new "This Fucking Job," whose riff is repetitive and rudimentary like said job, and in "Tornadoes," the song's awful details of human frailty being no match for nature were backed by choppy, menacing music that rolled like thunder and crescendoed like the sound of a train -- the way the bereaved characters describe the twisters. It was a powerful, moving delivery of a riveting song.

Hood dedicated the humanized disaster tale to "our friends in Nashville," where he said the epic flooding has been getting "less attention than the fucked-up man-made disasters in Times Square and the Gulf."

Drive-By Truckers remain in their creative and concert prime. Too bad the Avalon had to clear the room early for the kids lined up down the block for a late show by techno act LA Riots.

Venue: Avalon Hollywood (Friday, May 7)

SET LIST:
"The Fourth Night of My Drinking"
"3 Dimes Down"
"Drag the Lake Charlie"
"Birthday Boy"
"Girls Who Smoke"
"Tornadoes"
"A Ghost to Most"
"My Sweet Annette"
"Women without Whiskey"
"This Fucking Job"
"Get Downtown"
"(It's Gonna Be) I Told You So"
"After the Scene Died"
"Sink Hole"
"Uncle Frank"
"The Flying Wallendas"
"Puttin' People on the Moon"

ENCORE:
"Zip City"
"Let There Be Rock"
"Shut Up and Get on the Plane"
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