Friday night’s show at Crossroads KC was a field day for anyone who got swept into the alt-country craze in the early 1990s.
The opening band was Son Volt, an offspring of Uncle Tupelo, an early 1990s band from the Missouri/Illinois border near St. Louis whose first album, “No Depression,” gave name to a revered music magazine dedicated to “roots music,” a bromide that encompasses everything from country, folk, certain strains of the blues and bluegrass to hybrids like alt-country and Americana. Some of it is true-to-form; some if it is infused with punk and other insurgent attitudes.
The former quartet-turned-trio, led by founder Jay Farrar, opened for a band heavily influenced by Uncle Tupelo: the Drive-By Truckers, an Athens, Ga., band with Alabama roots founded in the mid-1990s that spills Gothic Southern narratives and dramas, most packaged in a swirl of loud and rowdy guitars that mix Southern rock with influences that range from “Exile”-era Stones to Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the Eagles (listen to “Marry Me” and try not to think of “Take It Easy”). They’ve also got some Jason and the Scorchers in their hip pocket.
Son Volt is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of “Trace,” their first and best album, and they performed most of its tracks, shuffling the order. They opened with “Tear-Stained Eye,” a luscious, melancholic ballad that references the flooding around St. Genevieve, Mo., in 1993.
Farrar was backed by two musicians, both ringers who embroidered his songs impressively: a pedal steel player and a multi-instrumentalist who added vocal harmonies and played guitar, steel guitar, mandolin and fiddle. The double-steel assaults, which Farrar, in a rare moment of levity, called a “cage match,” was exhilarating. The lack of heavy percussion eliminated some of the heft that drives the heavier rock songs, like “Drown” and “Route,” but it also isolated the melodies in those tunes.
After performing nine of the 11 songs on “Trace,” they tapped into other Son Volt material and some solo Farrar songs. “Barstow,” from his 2001 solo “Sebastapol” album, dovetailed nicely with the material around it. Its lovely, loping melody betrays its ominous lyrics: “By the time we make it to Barstow / We’ll be more than halfway to hell.” They closed with a cover, a deftly rearranged version of Bob Dylan;s “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35,” that deserves to be recorded and released.
The Truckers followed with a long, riotous and tireless set that featured tracks from “American Band,” which will be released presently but was available on CD and vinyl at the merch table. The rest of the 28-song set list visited a discography that comprises 11 albums and goes back to 1998.
They have never shied from taking political stands, something that was evident from the moment they took the stage: A “Black Lives Matter” sign hung on the side of Jay Gonzalez’ keyboard.
“American Band” includes takes on a variety of issues and controversies. “Surrender Under Protest” addresses the Confederate flag. “Ramon Casiano” confronts the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy and the acquittal of his killer, a former NRA leader. “Guns of Umpqua” is about the mass shooting at a college in Oregon.
Singers/songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are expressive and creative lyricists, traits that don’t always apply to the band’s music. They’re essentially a rock band, one willing to light the fuse on songs that stick to basic three- and four-chord progression. So there is repetition and redundancy, musically, from one song to the next. More than once it sounded like they were starting “Self-Destructive Zones,” but it turned out to be another, equally rollicking guitar anthem filled with a passel of descriptive lyrics.
They keep the tedium at bay, however, by delivering songs with precision and relentless fury and bolstering them with short but molten guitar and keyboard jams.
When the Truckers started, they played to a crowd of about 900 or so. By the time they ended more than two and a half hours later, several minutes past the midnight curfew, about 500 remained. No matter its size, throughout the show, the crowd responded feverishly to favorites like “Women Without Whiskey” and “Ronnie and Neil” from the glorious “Southern Rock Opera” album, “3 Dimes Down,” “Marry Me” and “Let There Be Rock,” an ode to classic rock, especially Bon Scott-era AC/DC. Even the Southern-fried cover of Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back” aroused a big ovation.
They closed with a beefy, rebel-rousing country-rock anthem from the “Decoration Day” album: “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” a love song dressed in road-song clothes that includes the line: “One night in Kansas City, we thought about killing a man.” The singer misses his lady – “I got your fine-ass self on the back of my lids” – but ultimately decides “I ain’t to crappy, too crappy at all.”
Before the encore, Hood stopped to deliver some sincere respect to Farrar, Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo, recalling fondly a time in 1990 or so when he and Cooley saw UT perform and admitting what a profound influence the “No Depression” album had on them. Friday’s show was evidence that, though decades have passed since those encounters, the confluence of sounds and inspirations remains vital and compelling.
Drive-By Truckers: Filthy and Fried; The Righteous Path; S**t Shots Count; Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn; Ramon Casiano; Baggage; Surrender Under Protest; Sink Hole; Made Up English Oceans’ Aftermath USA; Gravity’s Gone; That Man I Shot; Once They Banned Imagine; The Sands of Iwo Jima; A Ghost to Most; Ronnie and Neil; Women Without Whiskey; Ever South; 3 Dimes Down; Lookout Mountain; Marry Me; What It Means; Love Like This; Let There Be Rock; Kinky Hypocrite; The Bitch is Back; Zip City; Hell, No, I Ain’t Happy.
Son Volt: Tear-Stained Eye; Live Free; Catching On; Out of the Picture; Loose String; Route; Ten Second News; Drown; Windfall; Barstow; Methamphetamine; Wild Side; Back Into Your World; The Picture; Afterglow 61; Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35.