March 18 (Bloomberg) -- About a 10-minute drive from where a hedge-funder might be cradling a bottle in his Greenwich, Connecticut, wine cellar, Patterson Hood was gripping his guitar on the stage of the Capitol Theatre.
The burly band leader and his Drive-By Truckers brought southern muscle music to the storied Port Chester, New York, venue Friday night.
Built in 1926 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Capitol served in the 1960s and ’70s as a suburban Fillmore East, with concerts by the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd and many more. It closed in 2011 for $2 million in renovations, and re-opened last year with new sound and lighting systems.
On Friday, the Drive-By Truckers played a relentless 90-minute set that began with a slow-grinding introduction to “A Ghost to Most” from the 2008 album “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.”
The five-piece alt-country band, based in Athens, Georgia, feature an assaultive three-guitar sound and an affinity for Muscle Shoals-era soul (Hood’s father, David Hood, was a member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section).
The Truckers gained notoriety with 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera.” It uses Lynyrd Skynyrd and the plane crash that killed lead singer Ronnie Van Zant to broach thorny social issues such as racial politics and substance abuse.
Hood and guitarist Mike Cooley, the band’s other core member since 1996, shared time in the spotlight, with Hood fronting the big, grittier tunes like “Don’t Be in Love Around Me” and “Girls Who Smoke.”
Cooley’s controlled vocal let Hood cut loose on the guitar for rollicking numbers like “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” and “Zip City.”
Hood sings in a higher register than Cooley, so the two harmonize well. Glass-raisers like “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” and even “Birthday Boy” sounded more nuanced than most chorus-friendly tunes. Crowd members danced arm-in-arm, transforming the lavish theater into a honky-tonk dive, if only for a few minutes.
Throughout the set, a miscellany of influences surfaced, from Police-style vamping to the more overt Warren Zevon power chords of “Women Without Whiskey,” sung by Cooley.
As most things southern gothic go, the glee quickly unraveled into gloom with the help of Jay Gonzalez’s organ dirges. Arched over an imaginary mic stand, Hood cut into “Sink Hole,” about a bad banker driving him to the brink of insanity.
When Hood sang the opening refrain, “I’ve always been a religious man,” he sounded like Robert Mitchum as the killer-preacher from “The Night of the Hunter.” And when he lumbered across the stage, he recalled the ultimate Skynyrd-nemesis, Neil Young.
The Drive-By Truckers avoid the flag-waving and posturing of some southern rock while offering social commentary. The band brings sophistication to the genre.
The Old 97’s, alt-country pioneers from Texas, opened with a rousing, sing-along-heavy set rich in history. They played “Champaign, Illinois” a song co-written by Bob Dylan, as well as Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”
At 42, the youthful guitarist/singer Rhett Miller deserves to be mentioned as one of country’s great songwriters, but he rarely is. His barroom romances are honest and unabashed, much like his stage presence. Do his hips ever stop gyrating?
Eventually, Miller traded his acoustic guitar for a sleek black electric, careening into the timely, distortion-dense “Four Leaf Clover” followed by “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You).” The set neared its close with “Jagged,” a song that sounds anything but, with distinct vocal harmonies and a guitar riff as welcome as the gin-and-tonic that Miller’s narrator desperately needs.
The Drive-By Truckers are touring nationally through May. Information: http://www.drivebytruckers.com/shows.html.
(Sarah Grant works for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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