While obsessed with the grubbier side of life, the Drive-By Truckers have always been a band with epic ambitions, as reflected in their rock opera about Lynyrd Skynyrd, song cycle on the life (and ironic death) of “Walking Tall” inspiration Buford Pusser — and three-hour-plus concerts. But with their fine new album “A Blessing and a Curse” (New West), the Southern rockers are working on a smaller scale, delivering sharply etched songs with no overarching theme (other than the desire to endure often-squalid circumstances). The change carries over to their live show: a concise 75-minute set that showcases their best qualities.
With four guitars (including a pedal steel) wailing away, a Drive-By Truckers show will never exactly be tidy. The songs lumber along, powered by sturdy riffs reminiscent of everyone from Skynyrd, the Meat Puppets and Molly Hatchet to the Rolling Stones, Free and the Replacements. Drummer Brad Morgan bashes along, keeping things moving at their own baggy rate.
Except on the R&B-flavored “Goodbye,” bassist Shonna Tucker stays out of the way, playing sturdy, unembellished bass lines. It’s a combination that makes for good old sloppy rock ‘n’ roll, and the band gets hotter and hotter as the level of Jack Daniels in the bottle that band leader Patterson Hood passes gets lower and lower.
With three singers trading off vocal duties, the sound never gets monotonous. Hood is the most distinctive songwriter; tunes such as “Feb. 14” (with the line “you’re blossoming all over while I wither on the line”) and “Aftermath USA,” a no-detail-spared vision of partying gone out of control, are as good as anything written by the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg. Mike Cooley nearly matches him with “Gravity’s Gone,” a despairing tale that dares “to meet you at the bottom/if there really is one.”
But it’s not all gloom and doom. The set’s ultimate song, “Let There Be Rock,” fittingly recounts a teenage misadventure that culminates in joining a band. Like the rest of their set, the song is punishingly loud, but the band makes it work for them.
Son Volt, which opened the show, attempts to match them decibel for decibel, but it just doesn’t fit them as well.
For one thing, front man Jay Farrar’s reedy, contemplative voice is no match for the band’s Stonesy blare (mostly provided by guitarist Brad Rice).
Songs such as “Afterglow 61” and “Who” that intrigued on their most recent album, “Okemah and the Melody of Riot” (Columbia/Legacy), become more riot and less melody.
Only a new song, “Methamphetamine,” gets a chance to shine through. Played on acoustic guitar, it’s another portrait in Farrar’s gallery of dead-enders who find solace only when playing or listening to music. Unfortunately, in their latest incarnation, there’s very little solace to be heard in the music of Son Volt these days.
Drive-By Truckers return to Los Angeles June 14, playing the Greek Theater on a bill with the Black Crowes and Robert Randolph; the same trio play New York’s Jones Beach on July 19.