What with the cold weather and all, we were ready to wedge ourselves in among the throng of hyped-up Drive-By Truckers fans who had congregated at The Cannery on Saturday night — we needed to order a stiff drink and contemplate the way great rockers seem to keep on keeping on, no matter how times change or weather prohibits. Drink in hand, The Spin found a suitable patch of brick wall and nearly spilled it as we began dancing to the lewd but good-natured sounds of Bobby Keys and The Suffering Bastards, who had just hit the stage. They may be bastards, but they weren't suffering — Keys is one of rock's greatest saxophone players and exponents of rockin' good times, and they didn't let us down.
Like so many great players, Keys is known for his work as a sideman: He has an unmistakable sound on records by such esteemed wild men as Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Dion and, of course, The Rolling Stones. The Cannery is a few miles away from the south of France, where Keys laid down some torn and frayed sax solos with the Stones back in their Exile on Main St. days, but you could close your eyes (and hold on to your gin-and-tonic) and imagine you were grooving with the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band in their glory days. The Texas native presided over his Suffering Bastards with the benevolent but naughty air of a man for whom rock is the very breath of life — the man's grin is as infectious as his voice, which put The Spin in mind of some old-fashioned carnival huckster.
"It's hard for a fat boy to get his breath," Keys said right before he and the Bastards ripped into a funky version of Wayne Carson's "The Letter," which was a hit for The Box Tops and Joe Cocker, among many who have covered the tune. "I was about 80 pounds slighter back then, and now I'm a beached whale gasping for air." His solo on "The Letter" made it clear that Keys, along with bandmates Dan Baird and Chark Kinsolving — guitarists extraordinaire — still has it in spades. Driven by drummer Brad Pemberton, the band played extra funky. You could even call it slinky if you wanted to.
The Suffering Bastards did right by another great rock 'n' roll hit, Dion's "The Wanderer," a 1961 record that featured a young Keys on saxophone. They turned John Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" into a good-time party number and took the audience to rock school on amazing versions of the Stones' "Brown Sugar" and "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'." Their version of the Exile on Main St. track "Sweet Virginia" showcased Keys' greasy licks. And The Spin was mighty pleased to hear Keys do a kinky take on King Curtis' "Soul Serenade" — a song made for close, slow dancing.
After a short interlude that gave us a chance to refresh our drink and calculate the statistical possibility that this was the first time a lot of the crowd had ever heard "Soul Serenade," on came the Truckers. Having come of a certain age to the strains of the Truckers' post-boogie rock mythology, we were ready to see one of the great bands of the age do their thing. And they did.
Looking intense but relaxed, Patterson Hood ambled onstage with fellow frontman Mike Cooley, whose deadpan and slightly quizzical stage presence has always been the perfect complement to Hood's restless manner. These days, the Truckers feature the slide playing of John Neff along with the keyboards of Jay Gonzalez, and the band tore into a slide-heavy "The Fourth Night of My Drinking." Next up was Cooley singing "Where the Devil Don't Stay," a song from The Dirty South, which further inspired an audience already doing various dances of defiance and joy. Gonzalez' raging organ playing gave heft to Cooley's lyrics about skinning wildcats and playing poker over a stump in the woods.
The Spin has played a little poker in the woods, but never over a stump that we can remember, and we aren't skinning any wildcats. Maybe the Truckers have done all this and then some, because they played with absolute assurance and finesse — Hood and Cooley's rhythm guitars created a feather bed for Neff and Gonzalez to lie in, while drummer Brad Morgan drove the group without mercy. On nearly every song, the group displayed amazing twin- and triple-guitar interplay. It was super-boogie that combined the raunch of Lynyrd Skynyrd with the combustible hooks of some great, lost '70s band.
As the set picked up steam, the Truckers did some of that '70s boogie on fantastic versions of "Ray's Automatic Weapon" and "Uncle Frank." In fact, Hood went kind of nuts during his guitar solo in "Ray's" — perhaps he was thinking of that unskinned wildcat as he bent over and gave it all he had. The audience roared and stomped when Hood sang "State Trooper," this time going for broke on his knees.
Someone in the crowd offered Hood something — maybe it was liquor, maybe it was something else, since The Spin couldn't see too well in the pulsating mass of Trucker maniacs. "I always come prepared," Hood said, and crossed his arms over his chest. "I got my own bottle, but I approve of the sentiment." Then it was on to an impossibly soulful version of "A World of Hurt" that led into "3 Dimes Down" and the closer, "Hell No, I Ain't Happy."
Of course, we knew it was far from over: The Truckers came back out for a six-song encore that, if anything, eclipsed what they had already done: "Girls Who Smoke" and "Let There Be Rock" were just magnificent. The Spin talked to some Trucker fans who had come down to the show from Louisville, who assured us that this is how the band has been playing on the current tour — as if their life depended upon it, but with a seething grace that makes it clear they're not only a great Southern rock band, great lyricists and canny songwriters, but one of the last true psychedelic bands.
The Spin has always thought the Truckers owe a little bit to Pavement, and the way Hood & Co. made the old rock 'n' roll tricks come alive while keeping it gritty — well, it was as multi-layered as Pavement at their best. The Truckers speak not only for themselves, as punk-loving sons of the South with a talent for seemingly simple music that supports lyrics about the hard, slow slog we all endure, but also for an audience who knows and loves every word. If rock 'n' roll can be adult and realistic but still exciting and unpredictable, the Truckers are the embodiment of rock right now.