(Above [L-R]: Jason Isbell, Don Chambers, Patterson Hood. Photo by Justin Larose.)
Thanks to Turner South for putting on a show about real music. What a great thing this is, because for older people and other people who don’t or can’t get out to clubs—all they have is crap like American Idol, and they’re completely unaware of all the great music out there. It’s a shame no one is telling them, and it’s an insult to all the thousands of great bands playing in clubs all over this country. – Patterson Hood (paraphrased)
I have to say, it was pretty funny to see all the hipster local-music heroes, journalists, scenesters, club owners and townies who can usually waltz straight into the 40 Watt Club like they super-cool-damn-well own the place have to wait 30 minutes in a long line outside in the mist before they could enter. But there’s not much you can do when all 200 people are on the list.
So why the fuss? What drew indie-rock acolytes and grizzled rock-show pros alike from their vinyl-lined tombs? I mean, the Silver Jews show is still a month away—what gives? I’ll tell you what. New traveling Turner South show Music Road, hosted by Southern pop rocker Edwin McCain, didn’t waste much time finding its way to Athens. This live-music program hits various hotspot venues around the South, showcasing the region’s finest—if not most high-profile—musicians and songwriters, and tonight’s lineup sets the bar Olympic-finalist high with Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, Drive-By Truckers and Phosphorescent, plus local favorites Don Chambers & Goat, Chesnutt’s niece Liz Durrett and members of Hope For A Golden Summer.
Around 7 p.m. the doors finally open for the first set and in march the rows of Converse. It’s unusually quiet tonight inside the 40 Watt (a hush, I realize later, that was all too short-lived). Several camera operators roam freely and there are three swiveling TV-camera platforms set up around the room, as well as some tables and chairs up front. Since when did the quintessential, no-frills rock club get all Bluebird Café on us? Since a few hours ago, but it’d be back to normal by the more energetic second set.
Meanwhile, idiosyncratic songwriter Vic Chesnutt sits onstage in his wheelchair, waiting patiently with Elf Power, his backing band for the evening. Wendy Musick of up-and-coming rock outfit Southern Bitch is working monitors, because, hey, this is Athens—of course your friends in other local bands are running sound.
Chesnutt gets the cue and, ‘Here we go ladies and gentleman, we’re gonna play some songs now,” he says nonchalantly. “This song’s called ‘Distortion’—it’s a philosophical diatribe, straight out of my mouth.” And the musical adventure begins, with a hypnotic beat, some gypsy violin and lyrics that could burn a hole in your psyche.
After a few songs, McCain—who admits he’s still a little weirded out being referred to as a “host”—walks onstage to pump the crowd and plug the show. Vic and Elf Power do one more amazing tune, and vacate the stage for the next act. It’s clear that—if they haven’t already in secret—these two musical camps need to pitch their tents in the same studio and make a record together, like Chesnutt did with Widespread Panic on the Brute albums.
After a speedy set change, Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck breaks the chatter as he warms up, his lonesome warble and acoustic guitar subtly expanding through the room—ripples set off by a stone skipped across some metaphorical pond he’s about to invoke. His songs are gorgeous, dreamy, imperfect, jutting off the space-time continuum straight from some old Bonnie “Prince” Billy record and into Houck’s own wonderfully bizarre parallel dimension. Tonight he seems conscious of the cameras; more self-conscious than I’ve ever seen him onstage. But it’s a good thing. The songs are much tighter than usual, though not overly perfect in a way that might rob them of their frayed charm. Houck’s intense concentration brings a cohesiveness to this particular performance, making songs like “Not a Heel” (from Phosphorescent’s latest, Aw Come Aw Wry) better than ever.
Next, he’s joined by mesmerizing solo artist Liz Durrrett and sisters Page and Claire Campbell (from alt-folk outfit Hope For a Golden Summer), who provide some nice triple harmonies while Elf Power’s two-piece horn section fills in the holes like a pair of Stax session players on tour in Mexico who had a few downers slipped in their tequila, but still pulled through, miraculously, with a top-notch performance.
In the spirit of Athens’ communal musical history, tonight’s show is a collaborative effort. The musicians—most of whom play in two or three bands, sometimes more—float from ensemble to ensemble, backing each other up, sharing equipment and, most importantly, trying to help each other achieve their unique artistic visions. There’s no competition here—just good-hearted camaraderie and a deep love of music.
Following Phosphorescent, Elf Power returns in full to play some of its own material. Former Of Montreal bassist Derek Almstead lends a hand while these indie-rock mainstays—who’ve been at it for a decade now—plow through brand new songs from forthcoming album Back to the Web. The band rocks out with pounding toms and jangling Mid-East-tinged guitars spruced up by accordion, violin and cello. It’s good, but not quite as good as the epic set they played here last time around, opening for the briefly reunited Olivia Tremor Control.
After a while, Elf Power brings Chesnutt back out to wrap up the first round of filming. Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood stands up front next to a stack of amplifiers bobbing his head to “Rambunctious Cloud,” a song Chesnutt introduced as “a little slice of Athens.”
For the last tune before the break, Chesnutt calls on everyone who’s played thus far. The stage is awash in instruments and amplifiers, and there are 14 musicians scattered about, gleefully plinking and swooshing—after two false starts—through “Georgia On My Mind.” Nine singers singing, 3 electric guitars a-buzzing, two acoustics strumming, one bass a-bouncing, a sparkly set of jazz drums, plus violin and clarinet! (Just follow the bouncing ball, folks.)
But what seems like it’s about to be a dream come true rapidly devolves into a God-awful mess. Chesnutt, uses this grating robot-voice effect, the impromptu choir isn’t really cutting through the sonic sludge and everyone seems terribly lost. But it was a nice gesture, I suppose—all those Georgia musicians cranking through the Hoagy Carmichael-penned Official State Song—even if it didn’t quite work out.
At 10 p.m., after a long break and a tasty burger at Portland-style diner Clocked next door, I return to the 40 Watt just in time for Athens’ biggest success story of the last few years, the Drive-By Truckers, who have been slowly moving from big rock clubs to even larger concert halls. This band is stadium-bound; I’m convinced it’s inevitable. The only question is how long it’ll take, and if the band can avoid any tragic and/or stupid Behind the Music-style implosions. I’d like to think that, at this point, after years in the rock ’n’ roll trenches, with that loaded gun waiting in the closet back home, these guys have survived life’s myriad ass-whoopin’s long enough to have the wisdom to continue surviving. And I’d be a damn-dirty liar if I said I wasn’t cheering from the sidelines for a band like this to endure.
The Truckers, joined by former member/pedal-steel wizard John Neff, take the 40 watt stage unassumingly. They’re dressed up all purty and stylish-like for the cameras, which is new for them—coming off a bit like Keith Richards meets Paul Westerberg at Dreamland Barbecue. But the reason this works is because the look is pretty much the dead-on clothing equivalent of the music from the band’s new record, A Blessing And A Curse. (Out on New West this April.)
“We’re actually gonna tune up, since this is gonna be on TV,” deadpans guitarist Mike Cooley. The set starts intensely as the Replacements-indebted post-punk-sledgehammer downstroking of “Wednesday” washes over the crowd. Is this still the same band that recorded all those Redneck Underground country gems like “Demonic Possession” and “Nine Bullets,” the same band that cut neo-Southern-rock staples like “Sink Hole,” “Zip City” and “Outfit”? Well, no, there have been a few personnel changes along the way. But—even compared to the last album (2004’s The Dirty South), which debuted the band’s first lineup that held steady for more than one record—this new material is a pretty major stylistic shift.
As much as I’ve dug the Truckers’ past albums, I’m still digesting their latest and, after two or three listens, I honestly am not sure what to think about it yet… wall-to-wall guitars (yet less riffs and more power chords), buried vocals, more punk and less country, some early-’80s-college-rock-sounding production, but with a more radio-friendly (yet not exactly glossy) vibe than past releases. The only song I can think of that foreshadowed this new direction is guitarist Jason Isbell’s “The Day John Henry Died” from The Dirty South, and the only real links back to the band’s previous work are A Blessing and A Cruse’s few Stonesy rockers. One thing’s for sure, though: the Truckers are challenging their listeners, and whether it turns out a misstep or a giant leap, the music is evolving—the hallmark of any lasting, creative band.
After a few new tracks, Hood starts to tell a story introducing band staple, “The Living Bubba,” about Gregory Dean Smalley, a pivotal member of Atlanta’s Redneck Underground scene, who influenced Hood considerably before dying of AIDS a decade ago. But the crowd, now used to—and unfazed by—all the TV cameras, won’t stop chattering. It’s a shame, because Smalley’s story is one worth telling, and it would’ve been a good thing for it to reach a much larger, if regional, TV audience. The crowd noise breaks Hood’s concentration, and he’s forced to abandon the speech he’s passionately delivered hundreds of times, all before he has a chance to get to the point. I suppose it’s some consolation that the song, itself, was powerful as ever. [To read more about Greg Smalley click here.]
The Truckers make way for friend and local songwriter Don Chambers, who slides into a darkly impressive solo banjo tune. The vibe is a little like 16 Horsepower in its mix of Gospel and Gothicism, but with most of the hell-fire-and-brimstone creepiness replaced by a more irreverent, yet less-intense approach. Two of Chambers' bandmates from Goat join in on bass and acoustic guitar for a few numbers that get the crowd stomping and clapping. The short set ends with Hood, Isbell and Truckers drummer Brad Morgan aiding and abetting on what Chambers refers to as his theme song—the raucous singalong rocker, “GOAT.” (“I Swear I won’t never let ’em get my goat,” they all scream on the chorus.)
To close out the night, the rest of the Truckers come back for “World of Hurt,” a mostly spoken-word, open letter of a song—to anyone desperate enough to consider ending his or her own life. It’s probably the most genuine anti-suicide song I’ve heard, made more affecting by Hood’s passionate delivery. You can glean from the lyrics that he’s been to the brink himself a few times. When he shouts the line, “It’s great to be alive,” delivered with the perfect measure of determination and sadness, I look around the room—some people are screaming the words back triumphantly, but some people are actually in tears.
I don’t think Hood has any grand illusions about the message he’s delivering; music is powerful but it’s not always a cure-all. Still, the song is a lifeline. It won’t save everybody, but it’s moving and it’s real enough to maybe make someone stick around for another day. And the longer you stick around, the more chance you have of breaking through, of turning your life around.
The world of rock ’n’ roll can be seedy, selfish and self-obsessed—and the Truckers ain’t squeaky clean—but with songs like this, the band is, in its own way, railing against the darkness. And let’s not forget Isbell’s challenge to hold yourself to high standards (“Easy On Yourself”), or his inclusion of his Dad’s advice to stay away from heroin in "Outfit" (“Have fun and Stay clear of the needle”), or Cooley’s admission of weakness in “Space City” (“If I could have one wish right now, I’d be half as tough as I pretend I am”), or Hood’s non-preachy plea for safe sex during “The Living Bubba” (“Wear a rubber and be careful who you screw!”) and his passionate rants about getting involved in local politics, where you can really make a difference, and in support of Nuci’s Space, a non-profit in Athens that offers affordable counseling and healthcare for musicians.
For the Drive-By Tuckers, no matter what they sang on Decoration Day’s “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” there’s not really “a lot of bad wood underneath the veneer”—there’s a heart as strong as oak.