The band's sound has evolved through nine studio albums, yet what always remains intact is the raw, gut-wrenching emotion with which the two singers deliver it and their ability to tell a story through song, taking the audience on a journey to the darkest corners of the soul and straight into the heart of blue-collar America.
Sharing a bill at the Pageant with Texas stalwarts Old 97's seemed serendipitous -- even Hood made a point of noting it in thanking them, stating that the two bands started out around the same time, playing in the same circles, sometimes following each other by a night, but never touring together. Why it took so long to happen, I'm not sure, but what resulted was a lesson in American alt-country/cowpunk history.
Old 97's were less of an opener than a co-headliner, evidenced by both the length of their set and the nearly sold-out crowd already in attendance at their start. Acoustic guitarist and lead vocalist Rhett Miller (a doppelganger for a young David Cassidy) took his wide stance, swaying his hips back and forth and swinging his strumming arm in a crazy circle as he and the band laid out a smorgasbord of their vast catalog including "Niteclub," "Victoria," "I'm a Trainwreck" and "Rollerskate Skinny," as well as their version of the Merle Haggard classic "Mama Tried."
A basic two-guitar, bass and drums formation, Old 97's put out a thick sound that balances Texas twang and garage-rock speed and power. Miller noted that this year was the 20th Anniversary of Old 97s and thanked St. Louis for "always being good to us," mentioning early shows in the old Cicero's basement bar. The crowd responded to the nearly hour-and-a-half set with a standing ovation.
The place was packed and the whiskey was flowing when Drive-By Truckers finally took the stage around 10 p.m., opening with the angst-y, Reagan-era recession song, "Puttin' People on the Moon." A black curtain dropped to reveal an enormous mural by DBT's long-time album cover artist Wes Freed, featuring his signature ominous black birds jetting across a field of boulders. The heavy guitar and bass mix rolled over the crowd like a gathering storm as Hood alternately threw his arms to the sky and clutched his heart, belting out, "Another joker in the White House said a change was comin' round, but I'm still workin' at the Walmart and Mary Alice, in the ground."
By the end of the song, he'd drop to his knees for the first of many times over their set -- as if the weight of every note and phrase literally knocked him down. Hood leaves every bit of himself on stage, which is one of the main reasons DBT is such a great band, even if their sound isn't refined or his voice is rough around the edges -- he makes you believe it.
Hood's haunting, tortured wail is balanced by the deeper, more laid-back twang of Cooley, who took nearly as many turns on lead vocals with some of his best songs, including "Marry Me," the upbeat "Three Dimes Down," and old favorite "Panties in Your Purse," from the band's debut album, "Gangstabilly."
Hood and Cooley's onstage dynamic is yin and yang. They complete each other, like an old married couple -- the last remaining soldiers on a musical battlefield, fought with guitars rather than guns. The addition of bassist Matt Patton, who took over last year after the departure of Shonna Tucker, brought a youthful exuberance as he grinned ear to ear through every second of the set, as if in awe, yet holding his own alongside Hood, Cooley, drummer Brad Morgan and standout keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez (completing their signature "three axe attack.")
Throughout DBT's two-hour set they mostly stuck to their darker side, where they do their best work, concentrating on angrier, guitar-driven anthems like "Lookout Mountain" and "Sink Hole" as well as bluesy stories of the downtrodden "Why Henry Drinks" and the eerily appropriate "Tornadoes."
After passing a bottle around onstage, they closed the set with fan-favorite, "Hell No, I Ain't Happy," the song that, in my opinion, best sums up what DBT is all about at its core -- a fierce, down and dirty release of emotion and passion that tears at your soul and gets your head banging. By the end, Hood and Gonzalez were locked neck to neck in a raging guitar throwdown that shook the roof and left the crowd satisfied yet begging for more.
After a brief break, DBT obliged, with Cooley taking lead again on the mellower "Birthday Boy" before returning to Hood to close out with a bang with on classic "Buttholeville."
This was another solid performance from a band that has built a loyal following, never bending to what anyone else thinks they should be, but rather always remaining true to their roots. DBT doesn't just represent the sound of the Dirty South, but also real American rock music in its most raw form -- stripped of all pretense or corporate influence. Patterson Hood declared, "Let There Be Rock," and there was; and it was good.