Monthly Archives: May 2008

As the Crow Flies

This would be the second Sheryl Crow concert I’ve reviewed for the Paper of Record.

She closed the show I wrote about in September 2006 with Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll”; the other night, it was Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Always a worthy 70s rock warhorse, I guess.

Next month, I’m covering Iron Maiden — the first band I ever saw play, y’alls! It’s their Somewhere Back in Time best-of-the-80s tour, so it’s the stuff I’ll remember from sixth grade. Four days later, I’m covering Emmylou Harris. I hereby nominate myself for the Declan P. MacManus Diversity in Musical Styles Award.

The Setlist

01 God Bless This Mess
02 Shine Over Babylon
03 Love Is Free
04 A Change Would Do You Good
05 Leaving Las Vegas
06 I Can’t Cry Anymore
07 The First Cut Is the Deepest (Cat Stevens)
08 My Favorite Mistake
09 Gasoline – Gimme Shelter
10 Real Gone
11 Motivation
12 Detours
13 Drunk With the Thought of You
14 Strong Enough
15 Out of Our Heads
16 If It Makes You Happy
17 Soak Up the Sun
18 Every Day Is a Winding Road
19 All I Wanna Do
20 Higher Ground (Stevie Wonder)

Los Angeles, Detroit, Cairo, Rome

Suzanne Bertish and Andrew Long as the titular star-crossed lovers in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Either because I am remarkably prolific or because I am distressingly lazy, my reviews of the Shakespeare Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra and of the X/Detroit Cobras double-bill at the 9:30 Club last Wednesday ended up on DCist the same day. The Friday preceeding Memorial Day weekend, in fact. Given that I posted them both after lunchtime, I’m confident that tens and tens of people read both trenchant works of art criticism.

Happy Memorial Day, everybody.

X: Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, Jon Doe, and D.J. Bonebrake, pictured sometime well in advance of their current 31st anniversary tour.

His Reality Needs Imagination Like a Bulb Needs a Socket: Waits on Waits

Having had the opportunity in recent months to interview (with varying degrees of success) more and more musicians, artists, and other persons of note (some of whom are world-class interviewers in their own right), I find myself increasingly appreciative of the interviewer’s art. Getting people to relax and talk about themselves is not as easy as Terry Gross makes it sound, people! That’s why today I am particularly in awe of one journalist’s uncanny ability to get inside the mind of his subject in a way that uncovers something of the man’s creative instinct while leaving his mystique undimmed.

Ladies and germs, I give you Tom Waits’s interview with Tom Waits.

I only wish he would have asked himself why his Glitter and Doom Tour is currently scheduled to come no closer to Our Nation’s Capitol than Atlanta. Boo! Hiss!

Sonic Doom: Bell X1 at Ram’s Head Onstage

“We don’t know how rock to get,” confessed Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan at Ram’s Head Onstage in Annapolis Saturday night. He was talking about the awkwardness of turning it up to 11 in an all-seated supper club (“We don’t have shows like this back home in Ireland”), but his band has bigger problems: It you haven’t got the songs, then your chops are worth about as much as a Johnny Buckland guitar solo. (I just had to look up the Coldplay guitarist’s name to complete that sentence, so there you have it.)

Bell X1 is what remained of Irish indie-rock outfit Juniper after Damien Rice left for a solo career, so no surprise that Rice is one of the many purveyors of the atmospheric balladry Bell X1 tries very hard to emulate. Their genteel, out-of-focus soft rock — imported to the States when “Eve, the Apple of My Eye,” ha-ha, got picked up by “The O.C.” a few years back — sounds like a diluted Coldplay, itself a soggy imitation of better bands, like that other Irish rock band named after a famous Cold War aircraft. (Give yourselves another point for originality, Bell X1! Maybe that’s why you called your album Flock.) But the biggest flaw of Bell X1’s white-glove sound is that it allows you to hear the lyrics — the one about the angel and the devil playing poker in the Garden of Eden, for example (“I’ll See Your Heart and Raise You Mine”), or the one about how you have the most beautiful face, and we’re all floating in space. Surprisingly, there have been a handful of decent pop songs written about Writer’s Block; Bell X1’s “My Firstborn for a Song” is not among them. Somebody get Glen Ballard on the phone!

No wonder that for most of their 70-minute main set, even the band seemed bored. For Shame: Noonan, the former drummer who inherited lead vocal duties when Rice left, is a capable and charismatic singer. With a good song to sell — the Talking Heads’ “Heaven,” for example, performed during the encore — he’s plenty watchable.

Bell X1 closed with their best shot, “Flame,” which boasts funky “Miss You”-by-way of Scissor Sisters-flavored guitar part and a snaky bassline that immediately hooks you. The buzz lasted all the way until the chorus, when the five grown onstage squinted to sing in unison about how they want to “toast marshmallows on a cold, dark night.”

Honestly. Some bands just won’t help themselves.

Bell X1 play the 9:30 Club with opener Brooke Waggoner on Tuesday, June 3rd. A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

Media Mix: America’s Sweetheart Edition

Reviewed today in Media Mix: Dan Zanes self-described “pro-immigration” album for kids and Scarlett Johansson’s full-length tribute to Tom Waits — because you demanded it, America!

With Great Power . . .

Detail from Steve Ditko\'s original artwork for Amazing Fantasy No. 15, August 1962

Went down to the Library of Congress today to look at Steve Ditko’s original artwork from Amazing Fantasy No. 15 — which y’all know was the first appearance of Spider-Man, right?

Awesome. The original artwork — donated anonymously to the LoC about a month ago. For Spider-Man and the three other stories, also penned by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko, that comprised the issue. It would take seven months after the publication of this, final issue of Amazing Fantasty (nee Amazing Adult Fantasy) for Spidey to get his own title. Forty-six years later, he’s still going strong.

I’ll have a story about it in the paper next weekend.

Better Half Called Sinuous, Otherworldy in the Washington Times

Milady sees the future in Constellation Theatre Company’s current production of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia. Washington Times theatre critic Jayne Blanchard says she “provides chills . . . as the sinuous and otherworldly oracle Cassandra.”

Way to bring those chills, Baby. Respect!

Now That You’ve Found It, It’s Gone: SC / ATTE_RED DIS_P/ATCH_ES FR O M TH/E B_IG RAD_IO/HEA D SHOW

Radiohead rocks the Fortress of Solitude at Nissan Pavilion, Sunday, May 11, 2008. Photo by Luke S.

So, yeah, I was there . . . and here’s where I would ordinarily say “though no effort of my own,” since I came as the guest of the author of the Official Record of the concert. But it ended up being a major effort to get there, one in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Radiohead fans way more devout than me, failed. Biblical levels or rainfall compounded the piss-poor traffic management that has been a defining feature of Nissan Pavilion since it opened in 1995, and many would-be concertgoers, as we all know by now, sat in their cars, engines idling, for four or five hours before being told by the police to turn around and go home.

But since I was one of the lucky ones was actually inside the venue a couple of hours before Radiohead took the stage, I feel all the more foolish for not being able to offer much insight into the band’s performance, other than to state the obvious: I wish I could have seen it in dry clothes.

My benefactor had left DC late enough to have gotten the memo about the coming torrential rains, and had caparisoned himself appropriately in Gore-Tex. Once he arrived, he was escorted from the VIP lot by a Live Nation staffer with an umbrella.

Me? I’d left the District hours earlier, actually planning to stop somewhere along the W&OD trail and get a nice seven-or-eight-mile run in before heading out to my folks’ place in Chantilly to shower, take my mom out for an early Mothers’ Day dinner, and then cover the remaining third of the trek from Our Nation’s Capitol to Nissan Pavilion. I was dressed in a short-sleeved cotton shirt, a polyester jacked, an cotton jeans, which are excellent for retaining rainwater. As the day had gradually revealed its evil plan, I’d bailed on the run, and cajoled my folks to “dinner’ — in picturesque Centreville, another few miles down the road in the direction of Nissan — at 4:30 p.m. (My parents are now at the age where I really need to be careful about encouraging them to dine while most 9-to-5-ers are still at work.)

Anyway. I was parked in Lot F, about half a mile from the venue, when the gates opened at 6 p.m. In the four minutes it took me to jog from my car to the administrative office, every fiber of clothing on my body was soaked through, along with my notebook, my cel phone (which hasn’t made a call since), and my copy of The Ten-Cent Plague. (Since getting there crazy early was part of my plan, I brought a book. Yes. To a rock concert. Fuck you, Pal.) Having not a dry stitch anywhere on my body made the rest of the evening really enjoyable, especially when the high winds kicked up, driving little needles of rain flying in every direction and rendering the pavilion roof effectively useless.

So even though I had a ticket that thousands of fans would have committed premeditated murder to have — wrist-banded access to the general admission area right in front of the stage — I kind of feel like I didn’t see the show, because all I could think about was hopping up and down, trying to generate enough friction to warm myself up. Some vague sense that I was witnessing a truly commanding performance by a fiercely original and confident band did penetrate my consciousness, but the rambling account that follows is all I can piece together now. Reading some accounts of the concert today, I actually found myself wishing I was there. That’s funny. And truly bizarre.

The Peformance

I’m unfamiliar enough with Radiohead’s ‘tween OK Computer and In Rainbows catalogue that even if my notebook wasn’t soaked through and my fingers weren’t frozen, I probably couldn’t have compiled a setlist. It’s here and here.

After “All I Need,” the very, very subdued first song, with Thom Yorke playing piano with his back to the audience, he turns to meet his public: “Hello, Wet People! We’re having problems with the wet.”

Later on, he gets all mushy: “We know how tough today has been for you guys. Sorry. This is a nasty summer. It’s not nice.”

Perhaps out of solidarity with the crowd (or perhaps because it was warmer under the stage lights), no member of the band was bundled up. Ed O’Brien was wearing a scarf and sport jacket that seemed chosen more for sartorial flair that for warmth, and Yorke was in an unzipped hoodie sweatshirt over a T-shirt. Colin Greenwood actually took off a layer, performing much of the show in a T-shirt.

Jonny Greenwood looked at his shoes throughout the main set, but Colin, Ed, and Thom interacted with the crowd to greater degree than I’d expect from these guys. Thom had a spastic little dance to begin all of the upbeat numbers, when he wasn’t playing piano, and there was a lot of audience eye-contact from him.

For the second half of “15 Step,” O’Brien put down his guitar and picked up what looked like giant remote control for some kind of toy airplane. It wasn’t obvious what he was controlling with it — samples or loops, maybe — but he was very animated with the thing, posing with it in kind of a parody (I guess) of the kind of guitar theatrics from which he generally abstains.

Thom played along with Phil Selway using a little toy-looking drum kit brought to the front of the stage for him on one song. It would be nice if I could actually identify the song, but no. (This is where not being able to take notes really hurt me. Wet pages and frozen fingers = no notes.)

The stage set was sort of minimalist by big-rock-show standards, but very cool, with dozens of vertical filiments suspended from above flashing various colors and patterns in time with the songs. The video panel behind the band, meanwhile, showed processed and color-washed live video of the band performing, shot from dozens of angles — there must have been little cameras hidden all around the stage, but you couldn’t see any of them from the audience , so that was cool.

There was a great moment when the band played “Paranoid Android,” and the whole place joined in for the “rain down, rain come down lyric” that comes two-thirds of the way through the tune right on cue, followed by the sound of thousand of people laughing. Even some of the guys onstage smiled at that. Not Thom. But others.

Which brings me to an important point . . .

The Audience

The Radiohead Nation was utterly fantastic, enthusiastic and demonstrative despite the rain-shrapnel throughout the show. They still cheered, they still sang. You couldn’t tell if the band were at all moved by this, but they sure should have been. As with every concert I’ve ever seen with this kind of configuration, the people with the worst tickets (farthest from the stage, completely exposed to the elements, though I did see dozens of plastic tents out there) were the most vocal. The people with the primo tickets, the general admission pit, where I was, were way more subdued, which sucks, but still pretty fired up.

Exit Music (For a Film I Never Want to See Again)

During the encores, while I was wandering around trying to find my car (since I’d been sprinting for shelter when I’d left it hours earlier, I’d neglected to note which row of lot F I’d left it in), my feet sinking a half-inch into the muck with every step, I recognized “Karma Police,” “Planet Telex” and the rarely-performed “Fake Plastic Trees,” dedicated, I’ve since read, to all those who couldn’t get in.

I have left concerts early exactly twice in my life. The prior time was in 1995, at a Cranberries concert at the then-brand-new — wait for it — yes, Nissan Pavilion at Stone Ridge. God, how I hate that place. And now that U2 has signed with Live Nation, Nissan’s owner/operator, for next three tours (12 years), what’s the over/under that their next “DC” show will take place 35 miles West of town?

Adam Raised Some Cains: Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club

The best show I’ve seen in double-aught-eight thus far, and not by a little. So, so much better than shivering in front of Radiohead, the World’s Chilliest Band. (TM) That cover of “Adam Raised a Cain”? Just nuts. I only wish Shonna had sung one of her three fine tunes on the new record.

Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club, Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Setlist

01 That Man I Shot

02 Self-Destructive Zones

03 The Righteous Path

04 A Ghost to Most

05 Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife

06 Daddy Needs a Drink

07 Bob

08 Why Henry Drinks

09 Sink Hole

10 Three Dimes Down

11 Adam Raised a Cain (Springsteen cover!)

12 Ronnie and Neil

13 Marry Me

14 Steve McQueen

15 (unknown; sung by Mike Cooley – a cover?)

16 Puttin’ People on the Moon

17 Shut Up and Get on the Plane

18 I’m Eighteen (Alice Cooper cover)

19 Let There Be Rock


20 Zip City

21 Eighteen Wheels of Love w/ “the rest of the story” from Patterson

22 Lookout Mountain

23 Buttholeville / State Trooper (feat. The Dexateens)

24 People Who Died (feat. The Dexateens)

The Band

Brad Morgan – drums

? – keyboard, lap steel

Shonna Tucker – bass, vocals

John Neff – guitar

Mike Cooley – lead vocal, guitar

Patterson Hood – lead vocal, guitar

The Righteous Path: A Conversation with Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers Shonna Tucker, Mike Cooley, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, John Neff.

Singer/songwriter/guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had already been struggling to make music together for more than a decade when they formed the Drive-By Truckers in 1996. As the 1999 live album Alabama Ass Whuppin’ documents, this early incarnation of their band — which also featured drummer Brad Morgan, the only other founding member who has remained amid several lineup changes — was an explosive unit that specialized in bitterly funny slice-of-life alt-country-rock, mostly about working-class or sub-working-class characters (many of them non-fictional), all from the South.

The 2001 double-album Southern Rock Opera was the watershed release that earned the band widespread critical praise and a national fan base. A loose biography of Lynyrd Skynrd that uses that iconic Southern rock band as a kind of metaphor for the region (with its myriad racial, political, and economic struggles) as a whole, the album brought all the Truckers’ strengths together, marrying Springsteen-like characterization and narrative detail to crunchy guitar riffs as hard as anything in the AC/DC catalogue.

The seven years since have been a blur for the band: Four more remarkably strong albums, the entrance and departure of third singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, and a punishing touring schedule. The group had intended to spend 2007 taking it easy. Instead, they made a Grammy-nominated record with soul singer Bettye LaVette, then played an acoustic tour, revisiting neglected old songs and road-testing new ones. Most of those new songs turned up on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the 19-song, 75-minute album that came out in January. Less geographically specific than their earlier records, but no less ambitious, the album has been widely hailed as their best since Southern Rock Opera — the kind of accolade that will probably haunt them for the rest of their careers. They celebrated, naturally, by hitting the road. They play the 9:30 Club tonight and Saturday night.

Patterson Hood, like most of the band, grew up in Northern Alabama. His father, David Hood, is a session player whose bass and trombone can be heard on many mid-to-late-1960s hits by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Percy Sledge. Patterson writes and sings the majority of Drive By Truckers songs, having penned a dozen of the new album’s nineteen. I caught up with him last night in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on his break between soundcheck and the show. (Proof, as if any more were required, that he’s an incurable workaholic.)

Congratulations on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark — it’s one of your strongest records. One of the surprises here is [bassist] Shonna Tucker, who on her third album as a full-fledged member of the band suddenly writes and sings three songs — three really good songs. Where you and Mike surprised when that happened?

Not too surprised. I figured it was inevitably going to happen when she was ready. She was working on a couple of things back [in 2005] when we were doing A Blessing and a Curse. We’d hear her in the back room working on things, and then we’d ask her about it, and she’d say, “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s ready.” We were just waiting for her to do it at her own pace. She’s been writing songs for years. Her songs are great. But she’s had her hands full. [Tucker’s ex-husband, Jason Isbell, announced his departure after five years with the band in April of 2007.]

There’s no shortage of songs, ever. But the timing was right this time. She pretty much came on the first day and played us demos that she had four-tracked in her living room by herself of “The Purgatory Line” and “I’m Sorry, Houston.” We were all just kind of blown away — we were like, “Hell, yeah!” And then she wrote “Home Field Advantage” at the studio, actually during a dinner break. So we got a bonus.

It’s astounding, how much her voice feels right at home with the band.

I love her harmonies. I’d been wanting her to do more harmony singing for a while anyway. So I was glad the time was right for her to step up and start doing it — it’s really added a whole new dimension to our sound. I sure like the way her voice mixes with mine and with Cooley’s.


The dynamic of you and Mike Cooley as dual frontmen is a fairly unique feature of your band. It’s hard to think of another group that has two equally strong, full-time singer/songwriters. You two have been playing together for more than 20 years —was that always the deal, that you two would both write and sing your own material?

You know, it’s funny, because we played together in Adam’s House Cat back in the 80s and early 90s, and in that band, I wrote all the songs. I think Cooley might’ve occasionally sang a song, like a cover or something that he might pull out once in a blue moon, but for the most part, I wrote and sang everything. And I was always telling him, “You ought to write.” He’d say some crazy shit, and I’d say, “You should write that down. You should write a song.” They way he spoke sometimes, to me, sounded like lyrics. And he’d always make some kind of remark like, “Ah, the band’s already got a songwriter.”

By the time we started this band, he’d already been writing songs. In this band, it was always an open door: “I want to do as many of your songs as you want to do.”

Hell, I love his songs. He usually writes my favorite songs on the records anyway. Some of my favorite times of the night are when I get to be a guitar player and sing backup vocals on [his] really great songs.

He’s got seven on this album, I think.

Yeah, that’s a record for him. And they’re all so strong, too. Each one of them is kind of a key point on this record.

Right now is a good time. Everything is kind of clicking on all fronts for us. The tour is going real good. People have liked this record. It looks like it’s going to be our best-selling record. It’s funny, because in some ways it’s probably the least commercial thing we’ve done. But it’s really caught on with people.

The title, Brighter than Creation’s Dark — I know it’s a lyric from “Checkout Time in Vegas,” but it’s a mouthful. Some of other titles you considered, like “The Home Front,” definitely sounded more T-shirt-ready.

Urban Bovine Kenievel? [Laughs.] That one came in second.

Well, that’s a very funny line, but song it comes from, “The Opening Act”, is quite somber.

Yeah. I love that. My favorite movies are serious movies that are funny. I think that sometimes the most painful truths are best delivered with a little bit of humor, or at least a sideways glance. Especially on that song, there’re moments that kind of split that difference: “Is that supposed to be funny, or is that not supposed to be funny?” And if it’s not, why am I laughing at it?

To me, that’s how that song succeeds, maybe: the way it blurs the lines.


Since you brought it up, what are some movies that fit that description for you?

Well, Dr. Strangelove is just the best. What’s darker than world apocalypse? And yet it’s one of the funniest films ever made. Some of the humor is really highbrow, and some of it’s really lowbrow. It’s all there.

Ray McKinnon’s short film The Accountant inspired our song “Sink Hole” a few years ago. It’s an Academy Award-winning short film this Georgia guy made, and it’s just phenomenal. It’s about two brothers trying to save their family farm —in some of the most hideous, horrible ways imaginable. It’s a really funny film, with a very biting social commentary going on, not necessarily under the surface, but on the surface. It captures a lot of what I hope our records capture, when they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

I was trying to figure out how you — more you personally than the band, necessarily — manage to pull off that balance of humor and pathos, and I think of big part of it is your candor. I don’t mean only in the songwriting, but just in the way you present yourself to your audience, in your postings on your website and liner notes and all of that. It isn’t confessional, and certainly isn’t the least bit self-pitying — you’re just incredibly open about whatever emotional state you’re in, whether it’s joy or misery, in a way that seems almost at odds with the job requirement of someone who earns their living as a performer. You don’t seem to have much a façade at all. As the band gets bigger, do you think you might need to put a little more distance between yourself and your fans?

I don’t know. That’s a scary question. Some of the artists I love the most who kind of have their entire careers built on being real people — there’s still a certain amount of persona involved. There just has to be. Bruce Springsteen has to go home sometimes and kick his shoes up and laugh about that guy, that role he’s played, even though I would use him as an example of one of the most down-to-Earth, untarnished-by-all-this-shit rock stars.

Neil Young would be another example: He’s a rich rock star who lives on a ranch bigger than some states, but he’s also extremely down-to-Earth. And his songs have retained that, even though he hasn’t been an ordinary Joe, and he probably wasn’t, [even] when he was an unknown guy with a guitar.

You read the Dylan Chronicles book, and it makes a really valid case for why maybe you shouldn’t let people you don’t know [get] too close. I think he got a little too close and one time, and he had to retreat. I can understand that. But I don’t know if we’ll ever really have that level of fame either, so it may be a moot point. Which is okay with me — I kind of too old to be a rock star now.

I’m pretty content if I can maintain and maybe build on this fan base we’ve got. If I’m able to continue doing it, I’m pretty happy. I find making records to be really rewarding, especially right now, while it’s going right. Most of my big ambitions involve records I want to make. [Laughs.]

You haven’t made a secret of the fact that the period immediately preceding this record was a rough patch for the band, with Jason leaving and general exhaustion from something like five or six years of nonstop touring. And yet somehow you came back with what’s arguably your strongest record, both on the strength of the new stuff and the songs that were left over from earlier albums: “Goode’s Field Road.” “You and Your Crystal Meth.”

This record was a fertile period. There were a lot of songs to choose from.

I am really glad we finally found a home for “Goode’s Field Road.” I wrote that particular song back when we were still working on Southern Rock Opera. Of course, I knew when I wrote it it wasn’t for that record. So had I kind of earmarked it for [later], and then there was, like, a four-year period before we got along to recording it for The Dirty South. And then we cut it, like, three different times while we were making that record, and we just never had it. I’d listen to it and think, “It’s okay, but I like the song better than I like this performance.” So it sat on the shelf for two more records.

We kind of locked in to what it is on this record almost accidentally. The take on the record is, for practical purposes, a jam session. We started playing that riff — or whatever it is the song becomes — and I just starting singing it, and everybody kind of lit up: “That’s kind of cool; let’s roll the tape.” It was unplanned and just kind of natural.

There’re a lot of mistakes on the version on the record, and we intentionally left them on because we just liked them. Some of the mistakes we actually incorporated into the song when we learned how to play it live. It’s like, “Okay, remember when we forgot to make this change? Let’s keep doing that.”

You produced and played on Bettye LaVette’s Scene of the Crime album last year, which has been nominated for a Grammy now. Did you choose the songs for her to sing on that?


Hell, no! I’d never choose a Don Henley song! [Laughs.] I had nothing to do with that, nor did did anybody else that wasn’t Bettye LaVette! I personally pitched her, I think, 50 songs, and she shot down every single one of ‘em. Andy Kaulkin from Anti Records — it was his idea to put us together — he pitched her 60, and I think we might have cut two of ‘em.

Some of the shit she turned down was just off-the-hook cool, but she didn’t want anything to do with it.

Well, now you’ve got to name some of the songs she refused.

“House Where Nobody Lives,” a Tom Waits song off of Mule Variations. Neil Young — [sings] “Dead man, lying by the side of the road” — is that “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”?

I wrote four that I pitched, and that she didn’t want anything to do with. Of course, we ended up writing that song together [“Before the Money Came (The Ballad of Bettye LaVette)]. I still can’t believe that happened. Nick Lowe’s “Homewrecker” would’ve been great. As far as the record ended up almost telling a story, that particular one wouldn’t have fit, so as a producer I’d have pulled that one myself. But I’d love to hear her sing it. I mean, God damn, that’s a great song.

The Tom Waits song probably could’ve fit the structure of the record pretty well. And that Neil Young song — Cooley would’ve made it fit.

The other big one was “This Is Love” by P. J. Harvey —

That would’ve been amazing!

I pitched that one to her. I wanted to build it on an Sly and the Family Stone kind of funk riff thing, just kind of tear it down from its original structure. Almost like a “Superstition” Stevie Wonder thing with the clavinet — I was going to get Spooner [Oldham, the legendary session player who is on about 250 songs you would recognize, going back to the 60s] to play the clavinet on that. I had this arrangement worked up that was just smokin.’

I’m ready to buy the box set from those sessions now.

It never happened. She came in, we played it for her, and she’s like, “Hell, no! I’m not doing that shit!” [Laughs.]

Well, by now, plenty of people have heard the story of the Bettye LaVette album that your father, [Muscle Shoals session player] David Hood, played on in the 70s, and then it didn’t come out for 30-plus years. But now she’s had this late-career resurgence. You and Mike started playing together in 1985, and it wasn’t until Southern Rock Opera in 2001 that your band finally started to get some profile. So you guys and Bettye have that in common.

I think that’s one of the things Andy realized. It’s fun to bad-mouth record company people, but every now and then you meet somebody who’s the real deal. And that guy is brilliant. For him to have the foresight to see that pairing — he completely visualized how he thought it would be, and I think that’s pretty much what he ended up with. And that was without knowing any of us! He had never seen us live. He had our records and was evidently a fan, but he’d never seen us, and we’d never met Bettye. But he heard something in our music that made him think that we had that in us. And of course, we did!

We had been wanting to do something like that for so long. That’s, like, a dream project for all of us, to get to work with a soul legend and make a soul record; to put our stamp on that kind of record. Hell, that’s the family business for me, and yet I’d never done it! I was a kid when that was happening. So it was a dream come true. You’ve got to be careful what you dream, though. [Laughs.]

[Andy] saw a certain kindred spirit. He knew we had survived by being this we’re-not-going-to-take-any-shit-off-of-anybody kind of organization. That’s how we had survived for so long on so little, and that was how she survived. The risk he took was that we’d all kill each other before he got a record! I think he thought that the professionalism we all have would be his one saving grace, and I guess it was. Because we can’t really kill each other; we’ve got a job to do. And once we finish the job, there’s no reason to kill each other.

I love Bettye. And I think, in the end, she loves me, too.

She spoke admiringly of the band when she played here in DC last fall.

Once the record was made, she saw that we really weren’t out to fuck her up or fuck her over. Though whole time, she was so sure we were going to, I guess because everybody did for so long. It’s understandable. That’s what we had to tell ourselves while it was going on: Bettye is this way for a reason. She’s this way because she’s had to be this way. We’d kind of remind ourselves of that every hour or so. She yelled at us a lot. But I can take that, and I knew we were doing good work.

She didn’t know who we were. To her, we were just a bunch of crazy people she’d been paired with who were going to bury her voice under a wall of guitars. Hell, I picked her up to go to the studio the first day — she hadn’t even met the rest of the band yet — and we’re in the car and she goes, “Well, I’ll tell you one motherfuckin’ thing: If you think you’re going to bury my voice under a bunch of motherfuckin’ guitars like you do on each and every one of your records, you’ve got another thing coming, because I think y’alls guitars suck!”

[Laughs.] She ranted for, like, 20 minutes, the entire drive to the studio. That’s how it started. And I was like, “Honey, you can sing louder than all our amps anyway.” What the fuck? [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about your shows. I know from your liner notes that you sequence your albums very carefully, but when you play, you don’t use a setlist, right?

No. It’s a clusterfuck! But that’s the goal: for [the show] to still be sequenced right, without planning it. Some nights, it don’t work. [Laughs.] Some nights it goes off one deep end or another. I never know when I point to Cooley which way he’s gonna take it. And Shonna . . . there’s only two or three ways she can go now, but as we start doing more of her songs in the future, that’ll add another element of surprise.

But that’s part of the fun of it, that sense of anarchy. We’ve been able to retain that as we’ve moved into bigger rooms. There’s maybe a little more professionalism in some aspects of [the show], but hopefully not too much.

We’re a democracy as a band, in our decision-making. But whenever possible, it’s also anarchy.

Well, about that: You guys drink a lot of whiskey onstage. Your shows tend to hit the 2.5-hour mark pretty consistently, and they’re physically very intense — you’re sweating bullets up there. Do you ever sneak offstage to pound a Gatorade or something?

I’m a big believer in re-hydrating yourself. I’m big believer in, whenever possible, pounding some water to balance it out. Otherwise, that shit’ll kill ya!

You guys previewed and worked out a lot of the material from Brighter Than Creation’s Dark on an acoustic, or partially acoustic, tour last year. You’re back to the Big, Loud Rock Show now?

Oh, yeah. At the beginning of the tour [in January], that was a real challenge, because the record was conceived, more or less, onstage during our acoustic show. Electrifying the songs is one thing. But then to apply songs that are this introverted to something as extroverted as our rock show, and have it be true to both, is a weird, delicate balance.

The first few shows were good — interesting, maybe — but they weren’t quite where I was wanting ‘em to be, because we were still trying to find out how to transition these songs into that kind of thing. But about a week or so into the tour, it found its thing in a big way.

It’s morphed into my favorite show that we’ve ever toured behind. It’s really mean.


It always seemed like closing with Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” was the only sure thing in the set.

That still happens some nights. That song just won’t die. It’s not even our song, but it’s just such a great place to end the night. We certainly don’t do it every night, because that would become a bore, but we do it more often than we probably ought to, just because it’s so fun.

I’ve been covering that song since it was new. That was about the only song they’d let me sing in the band I was in in high school, because nobody else wanted to bother to learn the words. Then Adam’s House Cat covered it, and this band, too, pretty much from day one. Even when we were doing a more country kind of thing, withthe first record [1998’s Gangstability] — upright bass, mandolin, and all that — we still found a way to rock that song out.

Last question: The country has been totally polarized for the last eight years, to a point where we hear the modifier “red state” or “blue state” applied to everything now, which to me seems to reduce everybody to a caricature based on where they’re from. I wonder if many urban or surburban DBT fans have a more nuanced perception of the South than they might’ve before they heard your songs. Is that something you’re conscious of, or that you think about when you’re writing?

Sure. When we wrote our earlier records, none of us had ever really lived outside of the South or spent any time outside of the South. I’m a big believer in “write what you know,” and that’s where we were. And of course, starting with Southern Rock Opera, we were just touring all the time. I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 years all over America — some other countries, too, but especially America.

You can be in Seattle, which is a pretty cosmopolitan, liberal, blue-state American city, but get in your car and drive 25 minutes outside of town, and it could be Georgia with different trees. The accent is a little different. It may be a different industry that’s shutting down. [Laughs.] But by God, it’s the same motherfuckin’ Wal-Mart shutting the local businesses down in every town in America.

Alabama went to Obama by a big margin. The boundaries and the lines aren’t where they used to be.

Drive-By Truckers perform tonight and tomorrow at the 9:30 Club. Patterson Hood urges DBT fans to arrive in time to catch opening act The Dexateens: “They’re fucking great!”