It’s the night of the 13th May and the second leg of the Drive-By Truckers ‘English Oceans’ has reached the O2 Shepherd’s Bush.
As one of the most renowned southern rock acts of the modern day, the Truckers have a big reputation to upkeep, and the near-sold out audience is expecting nothing less. Fortunately, this is a night where no one is going home disappointed.
Support duties go to Heartless Bastards, a four piece from Ohio, who personally attribute a great deal of their early success to the headline band. What starts off slightly shaky turns out to be a strong and perfectly competent performance in its own right. Blending a curious combination of powerful female vocals, winding, psychedelic guitar-driven blues rock numbers and sincere country ballads, they are certainly no shrinking violets, and are well worth investigation from any established Truckers fan.
The time has finally come for the main event. With the lights dimmed, the band take to the stage amidst the dark, moody flurry of ‘Made Up English Oceans’. The musicians truly are a sight to behind in and of themselves, and their presence is felt immediately. The two frontmen, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, are really the ying to the other’s yang, the former striding energetically around the stage whilst the latter prefers to cut a more reserved figure off to the side. However, one of the main standout performances of the night comes from Jay Gonzalez as he effortlessly switches from keyboards to guitar, sometimes mid-song, doing amazingly well to compensate for the lack of a permanent third guitarist. New bassist Matt Patton is a curious character, oddly twisting and jerking on the spot yet never missing a beat, whilst Brad “The EZB” Morgan once again stakes his claim as one of the most solid and reliable rock drummers in the business.
The material is a real mix of old and new, ranging from Drive-By Truckers’ very beginnings (’18 Wheels Of Love’, ‘Box Of Spiders’) and featuring numbers from nearly every record up to their most recent release, ‘English Oceans‘. As one would expect, songs from the latter dominate the set list, and it is to the bands’ credit that they work perfectly alongside their best-known work. The winding, Layla-esque guitar and keys outro of ‘Pauline Hawkins’ leads sublimely into much-loved rocker ‘Carl Perkins’ Cadillac’, whilst the gentle and haunting ‘Pulaski’ makes way for a fierce, lumbering and muscular rendition of Warren Zevon’s ‘Play It All Night Long’. Despite their growing fame, endless touring and roughneck attitude, there is a still a certain humble, down-to-earth charm about Drive-By Truckers, suggesting that amongst it all they haven’t lost sight of where they came from. Cooley misses a cue during ‘Primer Coat’, and instead of losing his head he simply looks over to Hood, shares a laugh, and carries on unabated. It’s a great moment that shows that the Truckers would be just at home in some southern US dive bar as they would in front of a crowd of thousands, and the impression is given that the band is a labour of love and little else. Patterson Hood’s witty spoken word introductions to ’18 Wheels Of Love’ and ‘Box Of Spiders’ also work well to this end, telling interesting and poignant stories of life growing up is Alabama and the quirky characters that populate so many of his songs.
In addition to ‘Carl Perkins’ Cadillac’ and ‘Pulaski’, it’s a pleasure to see more recent songs forming real high points in the bands’ set. ‘Shit Shots Count’ is a real in-your-face rock anthem, with Gonzalez perfectly emulating the absent brass of the studio recording. The inebriated swagger of ‘Natural Light’ is a unique but thoroughly enjoyable change of pace, and is well accepted by all. The finest performance of the main set comes at the end with a belting version of ‘Hell No, I Ain’t Happy’, with the entire crowd together in full voice for the chorus. But the band have been saving the best for last, returning to an eager audience for an encore of some fan favourites, including ‘Marry Me’ and a raucous rendition of ‘Let There Be Rock’. The night ends with another new song, ‘Grand Canyon’, the closing number on ‘English Oceans’. Meandering and epic, it’s the perfect ending to what has been a truly memorable show, as the band members slowly peel off amidst a wall of screeching feedback, leaving Morgan alone to end proceedings with a steady, pounding drum beat.
When it comes to a modern no-frills rock show, you can’t go far wrong with Drive-By Truckers, and their performance in Shepherd’s Bush is living proof. Their blend of country, hard rock and homespun southern attitude is captivating viewing, and they never let up during their entire performance. Whilst it is a shame that some of the strongest songs from their recent releases were absent, the chemistry between the band members as musicians and individuals is almost without equal. With their globetrotting nature, it won’t be long before Drive-By Truckers come rolling around again, so be sure to catch this fine example of skill, personality and exceptional showmanship.