Drive by Truckers the big to-do (ATO Records/PIAS)
It's a complaint one often hears: "There are no real rock bands around anymore," they sigh, before invoking an era when Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, Bad Company and, er, the Edgar Broughton Band would boogie on overdrive till blood seeped from their eyeballs.
I know how they feel. I once shared a stage with Ted Nugent, a wild axeman (and guitarist as well) who prided himself on his survivalist skills. Ted ran on stage dressed in the skins of animals (mostly wild) that he'd killed and skinned himself and greeted the audience with a cheery: "Okay GIs, stand by your guns!"
America was where you'd find a particular school of road-rockin' crazies. Somewhere along the trail (see how easily I slip into the vernacular), I shared a moment with The Dixie Dregs, The Philly Frogs and the Outlaws, who boasted two drummers and four guitarists in their line-up. Boogie monsters, all. But not necessarily psychopathic.
Molly Hatchet was a different proposition. Named after a prostitute who decapitated her clients, these southern rockers featured three electric guitar players. It was said they'd been roadies for Skynyrd, which possibly accounted for them being noticeably less talented.
The band lived on the road but took Christmas Day off. Southern gentlemen. Except for the one who called me "a Limey faggot". Once. I had to put him right. After all, if you'd played left half-back for Drumbaragh you mightn't want people to think you were a Limey. It's a cultural thing.
Nine years ago my attention was arrested when Drive-By Truckers announced themselves with a double album called Southern Rock Opera. On a concept album about the ill-fated Lynyrd Skynyrd, this Alabama band seemed to have a handle on what had been good about the genre. And a time when "it was okay to rock!"
They recalled how, in the 80s, "there was no place for big, masculine-looking, hairy men with beards and guts and sweat. Not on TV. Sure the hell not on MTV".
The Truckers seemed like naturals. Since then the band seemed to lose their way. On the plus side they provided an impeccable Muscle Shoals-style sound for the return of soul singer Bettye LaVette. They also recorded with legend Booker T on his last album.
The Big To-Do captures a band hitting its stride. It's the album where it all comes together. The southern rock-roots influence, melodic songwriting, witty narrative story-telling and precise musicianship. This set is as sussed as vintage ZZ Top and as fresh as a new HSE scandal.
Sticking to their "three axe attack" template, they've got the smarts and cultivated taste to make the riffs work.
They've also got three fine songwriters in the line-up so there's diversity without sacrificing sonic cohesion.
There are few bands around who can come up with really good, cautionary and hilarious songs about drinking to excess (The Fourth Night of My Drinking), murder (The Wig He Made Her Wear), missing drinking buddies (Drag The Lake Charlie), exploitative work patterns (This Fucking Job), bored strippers (Birthday Boy) or, well, you get the picture.
Interestingly, the band doesn't sound like Skynyrd. Instead, with the organ churning away and the slide guitar scraping the stratosphere, at times you might think you hear Duane Allman, Tom Petty, Jim White, Neil Young or Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of tracks that spoil the party but 11 notables out of 13 isn't a bad average.
And the band say they recorded enough songs for a follow-up. Bring on the boogie. HHHHI