The Drive-By Truckers: Ritz, Manchester – live review
The Drive-By Truckers
12 May, 2014
Southern legends The Drive-By Truckers deliver a stunning performance in Manchester.
It was a real night for celebration as the city turned out to welcome the championship winning team as they shared their triumph with their fans. Oh, and Manchester City held a victory parade too!
For fans of the legendary Drive-By Truckers however, there was only one team they were in town to see; one that contains two of the greatest front men in the business, songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, a driving midfield rhythm section to rival any with bassist Matt Patton and drummer Brad Morgan and the brilliantly versatile playmaker of keyboards and guitarist Jay Gonzalez. The triumph we were here to celebrate is the fantastic new album English Oceans (see Louder Than War review here) which is being acclaimed as possibly their best ever.
First up however, in the splendid surroundings of The Ritz, were The Heartless Bastards named apparently after a quiz machine option for Tom Petty’s band. The commanding stage presence of Erika Wennerstrom is the focal point for this four piece, originally formed in Ohio in 2003 and the venue was already more than three quarters full when they hit the stage. Drawing material mainly from their outstanding new album Arrow, they soon have the crowd entranced. Wennerstrom’s voice is capable of the unexpected on recordings but live it can be awesome in range and authority.
Heartless Bastards are a band that combine raw power with the priceless commodity of the time that enables a song to grow. Arrow is a brilliant album that smoulders and spits like a fire in a breeze and some of this is captured tonight in the delivery of tracks like Gotta Have Rock And Roll and The Arrow That Killed the Beast. The set seemed all too brief but certainly left an impression and I can only recommend you take the time the time to check The Heartless Bastards out.
At 9pm it’s lights out and stage time for what could just be the best band in the world at the moment. Everyone obviously has their own opinions about this but the rock show that followed surely lent weight to the arguments in favour of DBT. The first is the sheer quality and wealth of material they possess in their armoury and the fact that live shows are split alternately on a song by song basis between Cooley and Hood. In fact, the band prefer to operate without a safety net and agree only the first one or two tracks before deciding onstage what to play spontaneously.
Tonight Cooley kicks off with Birthday Boy followed by Hood with Girls Who Smoke, a track of such quality it’s hard to believe it was only a bonus track for The Big To Do. We are soon into the songs from the brilliant English Oceans that seem to have done so much to revitalise the band and this further demonstrates the genius of Hood and Cooley. Their ability to spot the beauty or fascination in what may seem the most mundane of issues to other eyes, and then craft it into melodies that continue to grow on the listener, is a rare quality and one to treasure. Pauline Hawkins is followed by Natural Light. Soon we get When He’s Gone and First Air Of Autumn and the band are clearly relishing the delivery of these songs. If you love music and you like to think, or just enjoy the ease of a master-storyteller, then this band, and their combination of beauty, irony and tragedy, are for you.
Alongside these qualities is a bone fide punk rock seam running right through the band as The Night G.G. Allin Came To Town demonstrates. The furious intensity of the brilliant Sink Hole complements this with the story of the dispossessed farmer wreaking a bloody revenge on an unsympathetic banker and it’s also a morality tale for our times. Dead Drunk and Naked and the ominous chords of Lookout Mountain perfectly capture the essence of personal despair while Space City is a song that could bring a tear to the eye.
As good as Hood and Cooley are, the rest of the band are essential to the show. Mike Patton is undemonstrative, engrossed in the sound and looking like he’s just jumped off The Ramones tour bus, but what a bassist! Jay Gonzalez moves effortlessly between the keyboards and guitar, sometimes in the same song and is equally capable of firing mind blowing riffs at you as Patterson Hood or Mike Cooley. However at the back, holding everything together is the brilliant Brad Morgan proving that it’s not the size of the drum kit but how you handle it. Brad works with only the drums he needs but what power and rhythm he generates. A steady beat and then some, he has the gift of making his drum patterns appear simpler than they actually are.
The excellent Shit Shots Count and Hell No I Ain’t Happy close the set but a packed house aren’t about to let the final whistle blow and the band duly oblige with some extra time. Two each from the front men, Women Without Whiskey and the jaw dropping Where The Devil Don’t Stay from Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood’s homage to his hero Steve McQueen before the big finish. Only one song is guaranteed an airing every night on this world tour and it’s a pretty special one in Grand Canyon. Dedicated to a long time friend of the band and an essential part of their tour scene, Craig Lieske who died suddenly last year after a hometown show, this superbly evocative song is a fine tribute and one which may also bring many people comfort at a time of loss. As the song plays, the band leave the stage one by one, respectfully laying their guitars flat as if in tribute until only Brad Morgan is left, pounding out through feedback until he also departs.
A stranger turned to me and remarked on how he’d been watching shows for many years and never seen such a powerful ending, it was mesmerising. He was right and writing now I still hear those drums and see the guitars laid down and, as the song says “I’ll lift my glass and smile” and hope it’s not too long before this brilliant band are back in the UK.
All words by Dave Jennings. More of Dave’s writing on Louder Than War can be found in his author archive. He is also on Twitter @blackfoxwrexham