Concert review: Drive-By Truckers at Newport Music Hall

Andy Downing
Drive-By Truckers [AP File Photo]

The same week a gunman opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, killing at least 58 and injuring more than 500, the Drive-By Truckers pointedly opened its Wednesday concert at Newport Music Hall with a pair of songs addressing gun violence.

The first, “Guns of Umpqua,” a warm, almost genial track written in the aftermath of the 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, contrasted postcard-perfect nature scenes (“Watched the sun slip down behind a mountain stream in these great Cascades”) with the hellish events unfolding inside the classroom (“Now we’re moving chairs in some panic mode to barricade the doors”). The second, “Ramon Casiano,” told the story of Casiano, a Mexican teenager shot and killed by American Harlan B. Carter in Laredo, Texas, in 1931. Carter would later go on to lead the National Rifle Association.

Falling just days after the Vegas massacre, the tunes combined to suggest that guns and violence have been so long entwined in the American DNA that until a larger awakening takes place these tragedies will continue to enact a heavy toll.

For nearly three hours, the five-piece, led by dual singers, songwriters and guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, who functioned as a musical tag team, trading off lead vocals throughout, navigated these difficult social, political and economic climes, bouncing between Southern-fried burners that explored the cultural dualities at play below the Mason-Dixon (a snarling “Ronnie and Neil”) and simmering, soul-kissed numbers such as “What It Means,” where Hood took stock of a society that continually allows young black men to be shot and killed without ever pausing to consider the greater forces at play.

“If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks, well I guess that means that you ain’t black,” Hood seethed, giving added weight to the Black Lives Matter sign that adorned the band’s simple stage setup. Later, during “Dead, Drunk and Naked,” Hood dropped the line “the South will rise again” from the song, a decision that played like a rejoinder to Confederate fetishists who have recently rallied in cities such as Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere.

Fittingly, Hood introduced a new song, “The Perilous Night,” by explaining it was completed in a “fit of rage” following the August “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Built on a shuffling dance beat — Hood & Co. have half-jokingly described themselves as a “dance band for the revolution” in recent times — the track found Hood lashing out at the White House response to the violence in Virginia (lines such as “the killing side he defends” sounded born of President Donald Trump’s insistence that “you have people who are very fine people on both sides” of the protest), bemoaning the rise in Russia’s power and influence, and mourning his fading optimism as his surroundings grow darker.

Over the course of 11 albums and 20-plus years, the Truckers have never shied from peeling back the polished facade to examine the rot beneath. When Hood sang, “There’s a lotta bad wood underneath the veneer” on “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” off the 2003 album Decoration Day, it mirrored a line in “What It Means,” off last year’s American Band: “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but the core is something rotten.”

As frontmen, Hood and Cooley operated on different poles. The more animated, gregarious Hood often delivered his lines in a disarming, warm, lightly raspy drawl that could have arrived accompanied by a bottomless sweet tea. Cooley, in contrast, delivered his words with blunt-object force, focusing his songs on hardscrabble characters who were in the midst of bottoming out (“Gravity’s Gone,” which built on a guitar line that soared even as Cooley sang of sinking), gradually falling to pieces (“Women Without Whiskey”), moving through life unseen and unheard (“A Ghost to Most”) and struggling to adapt to changing times (“Filthy and Fried”).

Musically, the band traversed equally diverse terrain, swinging from three-guitar flare-ups such as “Lookout Mountain,” a thundering monster that built to an epic crescendo, to quieter tunes such as “Tornadoes,” which, rather than a twister’s fury, echoed the stillness that moves into its wake. The Truckers also paid tribute to the late Tom Petty, who died earlier in the week, covering “The Waiting” without introduction or fanfare roughly 30 minutes into its set. As the song closed, Hood briefly held his hat over his heart, but then it was onto the next one.

And so it went on a night where the musicians largely resisted speeches or easy sloganeering — save for Hood’s brief “R-E-S-I-S-T” refrain during a set-closing “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” — preferring to delve headlong into songs that wrestled with complex, messy issues with enviable fearlessness. “Somebody’s gotta mop up the blood,” Cooley offered on the boogieing, roadhouse-hardened “Shit Shots Count.” And someone has to document how it was spilled.