If the Drive-By Truckers’ The Big To-Do was sitting at the bar, I don’t know if it would be a good idea to take the neighboring stool. On the surface, it might seem like a good-ol’-boy-rock-n’-roll fun time, but the next thing you know, a highway patrol siren is bringing you out of your stupor and as you try to keep the pickup truck from barrel-assing off into the ditch, you catch a glimpse in the rearview mirror of – a human head? – rolling around in the truck body. Oh boy.
It’s a dang good thing the Truckers’ shows are fun, buddy, ‘cause there’s some pretty twisted stuff here. (Of course, leader Patterson Hood will tell you that life’s like that, but jeez: dead daddies and preachers shot by their put-upon wives and ready-to-snap fast-food workers and tight-rope walkers falling to their deaths … this is not light listening, boys and girls.)
But let’s not dwell on that – sonically, The Big To-Do is the work of a band who’s maturing without losing one bit of their edge. The Truckers are a full-fledged sextet on The Big To-Do with keyboardist Jay Gonzalez joining Hood, guitarists Mike Cooley and John Neff, along with the DBTs’ killer rhythm section of bassist Shonna Tucker and drummer Brad Morgan. The only downside is there are times when the thickly-layered guitar sound of the Truckers’ crunchier tunes tend to smother some of Gonzalez’ and Neff’s accents and colorings. Take, for instance, Gonzalez’ keyboard work on the bridge of the album opener, “Daddy Learned To Fly”: what would/could have been a wistful moment takes a drunken dope-slap in the back of the head, buried under the sort of wall of sound Phil Spector might’ve created back in the 60’s if he’d been really laying into the PBR and lived in Georgia.
Apart from her solid bass playing (always tasteful, even when raunchy), Shonna Tucker steps into the spotlight a couple of times on The Big To-Do. “You Got Another” (featuring Tucker on piano as well as lead vocals) has a building tension reminiscent of Wilco’s “Misunderstood,” but instead of a full-fledged breakdown, there’s just an ache. A real, real bad ache. But look over here: “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So” finds Tucker trading her bass for a guitar and leading the band through a too-bad-so-sad breakup song that sounds like a killer 60’s gal group (Shonna and the Shonettes!) gone apeshit. Fun? You’re darn right it’s fun.
Then there are the Mike Cooley tunes – and, as always, there are deeper waters here than what you may think. Cooley may come across as the ultimate chain-smoking I-don’t-give-a-rat’s-ass hardnut, but don’t let him fool you: the man’s got soul. He can crank out a beat-down rocker about a hardened whore (“Birthday Boy”), but then he can turn around and lay it down sadly sweet, too (the album-closing “Eyes Like Glue”). And somewhere in the middle is the lo-fi mixed rockabilly of “Get Downtown”, with savage gee-tar pickin’ all around (I said gee-tar, son) and nice Ian Stewart-style keyboard work by Gonzalez.
And then there’s a big chunk of tunes with lyrics by Patterson Hood – and this is where it gets really weird and twisted at times … with a great rock ‘n’ roll underbelly.
Name your poison, buddy. There’s the good-timey “The Fourth Night Of My Drinking”:
On the third night of my drinking I was yelling at your house
I had a stick in my hand and was convinced that some man was in there hiding out
I had a foot on your door; you had me down on the floor
I woke up next morning and my jaw was sore
Then I was back at the bar and I was wanting some more …
Or how about that happy singalong, “Drag The Lake Charlie”:
Drag the lake Charlie
And keep your fingers crossed
And if you’re friends with Jesus
Please ask him to help us
Our best-case scenario is Lester turns up dead
I’m almost out of Valium, courage, and self-respect
The Truckers can sound like vintage Crazy Horse (“After The Scene Dies”) or Uncle Tupelo (“Santa Fe”) without even trying; they just naturally have the grit and soul of a damn good nothing-too-pretty rock ‘n’ roll band. (Except for John Neff’s pedal steel work … now that’s pretty.) The groove is killer. But, man – sometimes Patterson Hood’s lyrics are just too black.
My advice: snag a copy of this thing, put it on, and crank it up.
Just don’t make eye contact with the crazy bastard on the stool next to you.