It Ain’t About the Past: Drive-By Truckers at The Civic Theatre

I was born and raised in the loamy red clay of deep South Alabama, so the Drive-By Truckers have long held a special place in my heart, their music a perfect poem of heavy, contemplative lyrics soundtracked by a shit-kicking three-guitar assault. I spent many halcyon nights in my youth draped over barricades at Tipitina’s for their 3 a.m. shows, pouring sweat and grinning from ear to ear as the band passed around a handle of Jack Daniel’s and ripped through barnburners like “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” and “Sink Hole.”

Over the last 25 years, the band has morphed and changed shape a number of times, including the lighting-in-a-bottle period where Jason Isbell served as the third guitarist and songwriter. But at its core is the partnership of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley (deftly supported by the rock-solid drumming of Brad “EZB” Morgan since 1999). Their ambition to create an album that captured the purest essence of Southern rock, weaving in the untimely demise of the original lineup of Lynyrd Skynyrd, resulted in Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling double album released on the now-infamous date of September 11, 2001.

This year, they announced the Southern Rock Opera Revisited 2024 tour, noting that the songs from this record will likely be retired from live shows after this run. Naturally, I wouldn’t miss the chance to hear them live one last time. We arrived a bit early to find the balcony seating already completely taken. I knew the audience would skew older, but there was an awful lot of silver and white hair amongst the crowd. I often find myself stunned to remember that I’m in my 40s now, but I felt practically youthful in that room.

Thankfully, the floor level filled before the show started and the energy of the band brought out the best in the crowd, which seemed—judging from their enthusiasm and knowledge of the material—to be filled with people I likely stood next to at those Tip’s shows 20 years ago. It wasn’t a fully accurate cover-to-cover playing of the record, as some songs were played out of order and two, written by former guitarist Rob Malone, were left out. In the end we got 18 of the 20 Southern Rock Opera tracks and were also treated to a few additional numbers from more recent recordings (“Ramon Casiano” and “Surrender Under Protest” from 2016’s American Band; “Made Up English Oceans” and “Primer Coat” from 2014’s English Oceans; and “Every Single Storied Flameout” from 2022’s Welcome 2 Club XIII).

From a technical standpoint, the band was as tight as I’ve ever seen them. Patterson’s stage banter was a bit less piss-and-vinegar than it was a few decades ago, but he gave us great insight into the making of the album and a peek into the dreams of the young men that powered its creation. The best example of this was “Mystery Song,” a track which producer David Barbe discovered when he went to remix the album for a box set release earlier this year. Nobody in the band has a single memory of this song, so Patterson had to tape a sheet of lyrics and chords to his mic stand in order to perform it.

One track saw a significant rework from its original form that unfortunately fell flat for me. “Plastic Flowers on the Highway” has always done a perfect job balancing maudlin themes (motor vehicle deaths) with the harsh reality that life goes on. Some of that poignancy was lost with the sped-up tempo of the version played at this show.

Something that hit just right, however, was the singular and unmistakable art of Wes Freed being projected behind the band throughout the show. The artist, who passed away in 2022, was a long-time collaborator of the band, and their albums’ signature visual elements were all his. His work was animated and, at times, cut with archival footage of DBT performing in the early 2000s. For someone who has been following this band for decades, it was a beautiful and grounding touch.

This show took place on Father’s Day (Sunday, June 16), and Patterson took multiple opportunities to shout out his own father, renowned Muscle Shoals session musician David Hood. But as the show came to a close with the album’s final track, “Angels and Fuselage,” he shared a bit about the genesis of the track being about an embodied imagining of one of his worst fears (dying in a plane crash) that was made even more smothering when he became a father.

He noted, however, that if he was to teach his kids one lesson it would be this: Fuck fear. Fear will rob you. It will hold you back from your destiny if you let it. Twenty-five years into a storied and rich career, the Truckers have proven that pushing past that fear brings transcendence. That there is value in telling the stories of those that society overlooks. That the “duality of the Southern thing” means reckoning with an identity that must hold both Martin Luther King Jr. and George Wallace, fire hoses and Wilson Pickett. And that while it’s OK to be scared shitless, in the end, you better shut your mouth and get your ass on that plane.


photos by Steven Hatley

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