When the ArtsQuest Center (Musikfest Café’s home) opened three and a half years ago, a friend and I casually speculated, “Hey, maybe they’ll book Drive-By Truckers.” Prior to this gleaming edifice at the foot of the old Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces, there were no right-size, right-vibe venues in the immediate Bethlehem area for the literate hard-rocking band.
As the Truckers took the stage, frontman Patterson Hood commented, “Wow, this is pretty cool” as he glanced at the multi-colored blast furnace backdrop, impressed with both the setting and the keyed-up crowd. The Truckers then launched into a briskly-paced 18-song show that had several climactic moments. From Mike Cooley’s opening “Made Up English Oceans,” we knew this would be a show unlike most seen at Musikfest Café.
With Cooley and Hood alternating lead vocals, the Truckers played songs scattered throughout their ten-album catalog. Four came from the new, critically-acclaimed English Oceans, including the mid-set sequence of “Pauline Hawkins” followed by “Primer Coat.”
Throughout, Jay Gonzalez displayed amazing versatility, playing electric piano, B3 and lead guitar with both ferocity and tastefulness. When he strapped on his axe, the Truckers blared confidently in that patented three-guitar attack, as on Hood’s searing “Puttin’ People on the Moon” and Cooley’s “Shit Shots Count.”
Interestingly enough, while the band has glue-like chemistry, you don’t see much onstage interaction between Cooley and Hood, who have been playing together for over 25 years. It’s uncanny—they know each other’s tendencies so well that interaction is even not necessary, I guess.
These guys have no problem engaging their audience, a fact that was especially apparent in the four-song encore, which took a rocking show to stratospheric levels as Cooley, with his Flying V guitar, kicked off with “Marry Me.” Consummate frontman Hood then went into “Let There Be Rock,” first adding, “Rock saved my life as a teenager… It saved my life last night in Pawtucket, RI… And probably again tonight in front of Bethlehem Steel.” The crowd knew every word as Hood belted out the lyrics, with an ever widening grin on his face. Cooley followed with a blistering “Zip City” and Hood again maintained the high intensity, closing the show with a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long.”
Undoubtedly, the band will return to Musikfest Café. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another three years, and that the venue becomes a Truckers tour staple.
– Jim Hynes