I Spent My Weekend with the Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club

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As the Paper of Record could not publish the title of “Buttholeville,” I didn’t even attempt to quote the following exchange in my review of the first of Drive-By Truckers’ two 9:30 Club shows this weekend. Group leader (or at least primary songwriter and spokesman) Patterson Hood, whom I had the sublime pleasure of interviewing last year, was sick with walking pneumonia, and had to skip both concerts.

Mike Cooley, halfway through his first (?) show as lead singer: “I do not need Patterson Hood anymore. I hope he sees this on YouTube and shits himself.”

Shonna Tucker: “He’s been shitting his pants all day, unfortunately.”

Get well soon, Patterson!

Here’s my unexpurgated review of the Friday show, with some additional commentary on Saturday night and setlists for both. Three . . . two . . . one . . .

“Just ‘cause I don’t run my mouth don’t mean I got nothin’ to say,” goes the line in Drive-By Truckers’ “Marry Me.” It’s one of the grizzled Alabama-by-way-of-Athens, GA outfit’s many superb numbers written and sung by second-banana frontman Mike Cooley, usually the laconic sideman to garrulous group leader Patterson Hood.

Cooley probably runneth more at the Truckers’ 9:30 Club gig Friday night than in his prior 20 years onstage. Hood was stricken with walking pneumonia, unable to perform, forcing Cooley into the mix as starting quarterback. The club had posted notice offering refunds to those unwilling to see DBT-minus-one. But most were game, and the reduced Truckers rewarded their faith with a sloppy but triumphant 21-song set, rich in the sort of Cooley slow-burners (“Cottonseed,” “Pin Hits the Shell”) that often get passed over in the whiskey-and-amphetamines crunch of full-strength DBT shows, and also in seminal rarities (“One of These Days,” “Panties in Your Purse.”)

The Truckers have long been blessed with excess when it comes to ace songcraft. After third-banana frontman Jason Isbell left two years ago, his ex-wife, DBT bassist Shonna Tucker, revealed herself as a singer/songwriter of no mean gift, contributing three topnotch tunes to 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. She sang them all Friday, recalling Loretta Lynn in her prime. But the night clearly belonged to Cooley. Though less prolific than Hood, he’s pound-for-pound the better songwriter, and not just because all the most deliciously quotable lines in the group’s deep catalogue are his. Exhibit 794: “She woke up sunny side-down, and I was still thinking I was too proud to flip her over,” from “Gravity’s Gone.” (And there’re plenty more where that came from.)

Taking frequent pulls from the fifth of Jack Daniels making the rounds onstage, Cooley appeared to relishing his rare turn in the spotlight, soliciting requests — and lyrical aid, when he got lost in the middle of “Bob,” one of his wry character studies. “Oh yeah, it’s a country song!” he laughed, after an audience member gave him the cue, “Mama.”

Hood’s guitar and harmony vocals were missed on power cuts like “Women without Whiskey.” But guitarist William Tonks, an Athens musician who also performed with openers Bloodkin, joined in a third of the way through the set. He compensated for Hood’s absence modestly at first, but by night’s end he had made himself at home, even taking a solo on “A Ghost to Most.” And there were tributes to Hood: His mic remained set up center-stage all night, and Cooley actually walked out Hood-stiz at the top of the show, wearing a blazer and holding his arms out Christ-like, in a gentle parody of his friend’s typical entrance.

That neither Cooley nor Tucker attempted one of Hood’s songs was a little disappointing, but the fact that Cooley invited a surprisingly able punter on stage to perform “Buttholeville” made up for it. When the guy started singing “Life in the Factory” instead, Cooley & Co. fell in behind him, turning what should have been a karaoke novelty into the gig’s unlikely highlight. That this band can still deliver absent their key performer shouldn’t surprise anyone: Even city slickers know that a wounded animal is the most dangerous kind.

SATURDAY: Patterson was still on the injured list. But even taking his songs (which is to say, most of the band’s catalogue) out of the equation, DBT served up an acceptable level of variation. Another 21-song set included six not performed the night before, with two surprise covers during the encore: Spooner Oldham’s “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers” and Neil’s “Rocking in the Free World.” Friday was funnier but Saturday was tighter musically, on account of Cooley’s sobriety, probably.

The Setlists

Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club, Friday, February 20, 2009

01 Daddy’s Cup
02 Three Dimes Down
03 Panties in Your Purse
04 Women without Whiskey
05 I’m Sorry, Houston (Shonna Tucker)
06 Checkout Time in Vegas
07 Gravity’s Gone
08 Space City
09 Carl Perkins’ Cadillac
10 Bob
11 Home Field Advantage (Shonna Tucker)
12 One of These Days
13 Lisa’s Birthday
14 Marry Me
15 Cottonseed
16 The Purgatory Line (Shonna Tucker)
17 A Ghost to Most
18 Life in the Factory (lead vocal by random audience member)

ENCORE

19 Pin Hits the Shell
20 Zip City
21 Shut Up and Get on the Plane

Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club, Saturday, February 21, 2009

01 Zip City
02 Home Field Advantage (Shonna Tucker)
03 Uncle Frank
04 Where the Devil Don’t Stay
05 Cottonseed
06 Marry Me
07 I’m Sorry, Houston (Shonna Tucker)
08 Lisa’s Birthday
09 72 (This Highway’s Mean)
10 One of These Days
11 Bob
12 Space City
13 Guitar Man Upstairs
14 Three Dimes Down
15 Self-Destructive Zones

ENCORE

16 Lonely Women Make Good Lovers
17 Carl Perkins’ Cadillac
18 Women Without Whiskey
19 The Purgatory Line (Shonna Tucker)
20 Rocking in the Free World
21 Shut Up and Get on the Plane

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One response to “I Spent My Weekend with the Drive-By Truckers at the 9:30 Club

  1. Mike Cooley represents to me what (inexplicably to me) Brad Pitt represents to millions of other women. I think he’s the hottest, most talented guy on stage and in recording today. I would have loved to have seen those shows…

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