"It's set in the South because that's where we're from and it's what we know, but it's not that different from the story Roger and Me told about Detroit." Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers is talking about the band's upcoming album, The Dirty South; the songs are largely narratives about how tough economic times affect people, and "what people do when they feel like they don't have a choice. It's sometimes a pretty violent record."
That might sound like a bummer, but the Drive-By Truckers, who will perform at Tipitina's Bacchus party Sunday, Feb. 22, embrace rock 'n' roll and all its contradictions. So smart insights can be found in songs with hard, rousing guitar riffs and celebratory choruses. "It's bigger, louder and meaner than Decoration Day (the band's previous release)," Hood says.
To record the album, the band returned to its old stomping grounds in Muscle Shoals, Ala., "where four of us are from, but we'd never recorded there," Hood says. Patterson Hood is the son of David Hood, bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. For Patterson and those of his generation, the glory days of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers had passed, and what was left of Muscle Shoals prompted him to write about trying to escape "Buttholeville" for 1998's Gangstabilly. The band's output can be seen as an attempt to come to grips with its Southern roots, the turning point being 2001's Southern Rock Opera, a two-disc set using Lynyrd Skynyrd's story and three-guitar attack to contemplate "the duality of the Southern Thing."
Skynyrd along with classic rock and punk shaped the band's aesthetics, so songs have a big-rock quality, featuring Neil Young or AC/DC-esque guitar riffs, but with more self-awareness than you might expect. The band cut "Heathens" from Decoration Day three times over the course of a year because "we didn't like the versions we'd done," Hood explains. "They weren't as good as the song." That's not the sensitivity to a ballad you'd expect from a bunch of beer drinkers, but it isn't an indication that the band has gone Fleetwood Mac. "'Sinkhole' was a first take," he recalls. "It was the demo we cut to learn it from, so we turned up the guitars and let 'er rip."
For all the intellectualizing that can be done around the band, their live show is more than anything else a reminder of the simple, sublime pleasures associated with electric guitars. Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell play them like the guitars say everything the words do, and at times, they do. There's little in "Decoration Day" that isn't suggested by Isbell's elegiac lead, and "Let There Be Rock" would be just as triumphant as an instrumental. The Drive-By Truckers are horn-free, so they aren't standard Mardi Gras fare, but no show during the season will be more exhilarating or passionate.
Tony Joe White's appearances in New Orleans at the last two Ponderosa Stomps were inspired, and it's hard to imagine White won't end up playing Jazz Fest at some point. Until that happens, Tony Joe White in Concert, a DVD from a 1992 appearance on German television, will have to tide fans over. The performance isn't as revelatory as the Oak Grove native's recent sets that featured only him, a drummer and a fuzz pedal, but it's the show fans of "Polk Salad Annie" will want -- soulful, with a tight blues band behind him.
Some music makes more sense during Mardi Gras than it does any other time of the year. Admit it -- you don't want to hear "Carnival Time" in the middle of August, but when it is Carnival time, you want to hear Al Johnson's classic. Similarly, Mardi Gras Indians are "the soul of the Mardi Gras," and though their music works year around, its embodiment of energy, idiosyncrasy and tradition is most resonant during Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras Throwdown on Friday, Feb. 20, at Tipitina's French Quarter features Johnson, Big Chief Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief Rod of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Cyril Neville & the Uptown All-Stars, and the ReBirth Brass Band, among others. A lineup like that promises a funky summit meeting that could go on all night, but that too is apropos of Mardi Gras.
Susan Cowsill has taken her time starting a solo act, but she's playing Sunday, Feb. 22, at Carrollton Station. The one-time Continental Drifter, her husband/drummer/ex-Drifter Russ Broussard and Uptown Plowboy Chris Knotts gigged on Bourbon Street for a year as the Bonoffs, playing covers and badgering tourists for tips. Playing through happy hour, the gig made making music and raising a family financially feasible, but it wasn't as artistically satisfying as playing original material. Now Cowsill is committed to a solo career, "though it's never really a solo thing when you're playing with a band," she says. She's working on material for some upcoming recordings with Mark Bryan of Hootie & the Blowfish, scheduled to start when Hootie gets off the road. In the live show, Cowsill says, "we do old material" including Continental Drifters songs, "new songs and whatever fun covers I feel like playing."
- The Drive-By Truckers' musical aesthetics have been shaped by the three-guitar attack of Lynyrd Skynyrd along with classic rock and even punk.