MusicMusic Features

Dig the Drive-By Truckers’ Sprawling, Essential New Live Album

Recorded over the course of three nights at The Fillmore in San Francisco, It’s Great to Be Alive is the third live album from the Drive-By Truckers. At 35 tracks spread across three discs, Alive serves as the most comprehensive and essential collection of DBT’s illustrious career.

Fans of the acclaimed Athens-based Southern rock band already know that the group’s live sets have played as big a role in building its legend as its recorded material. Career-spanning setlists that regularly approach the three-hour mark, multiple encores, meticulously narrated backstories to songs that are sometimes longer than the songs themselves—these are just some of the hallmarks that have given DBT’s live show such a glowing reputation.

Of DBT’s three previous live albums, Alabama Ass Whuppin’, recorded in 1999 and released the following year, is the only one that ever felt substantial. Recorded in somewhat low quality in various venues across Athens and Atlanta, Ass Whuppin’ painted an accurate picture of the quick and dirty rise of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s passion project. 2009’s Live From Austin, TX and 2011’s Live At Third Man are well done but come off a little too clean-cut and minimalist to be considered great representations of the band.

By its sheer magnitude, Alive renders those past live releases obsolete—or, at the very least, makes them less compelling. The massive tracklist covers songs from every album in the Truckers’ discography, as well as a few tunes you won’t find anywhere else—the excellent “Runaway Train” comes from Hood and Cooley’s little-known pre-DBT band, Adam’s House Cat. Some albums are favored over others—Southern Rock Opera gets more space than The Dirty South, for instance—but this is a carefully selected group of songs that should please any longtime fan.

Many songs are completely reworked from their studio counterparts. “Puttin’ People On the Moon” is one example; here, it features darker instrumentals, different lyrics (The lyric, “Another joker in the White House said a change was comin’ round” is changed to place the blame on “that motherfuckin’ tea party”) and longer guitar solos. In fact, most of the songs on Alive have been extended, featuring multiple solo breaks or fascinating diatribes about the origins behind the lyrics from Hood and Cooley.

Perhaps the most notable facet of Alive is its celebration of DBT’s recent material. Several songs from the group’s 2014 release, English Oceans, fill out the setlist and sound better than they did on record. “Made Up English Oceans” and “First Air of Autumn” find new life in the live setting and become essential parts of the band’s discography.

The decision to end Alive with English Oceans highlight “Grand Canyon” is a significant one. Dedicated to former 40 Watt manager and longtime DBT merch manager Craig Lieske, who passed away in 2013, “Canyon” is a sprawling epic and a defining moment for the band’s current era. On Alive, the song has never sounded better.

There are some minor missteps. While recording the album over three nights meant the band could cover more ground, occasional hard edits signifying that, no, a lot of these songs weren’t actually played back-to-back can take the listener out of the moment. There is also a discrepancy between the level of crowd noise across different tracks. On some songs, you can hear the crowd singing along, while on others they are strangely muted, to the point that there is no audible applause or reaction at all.

While the absence of onetime members Jason Isbell and Shonna Tucker—and their crucial contributions to the band’s catalog from 2004–2011—means the record can never claim to be the quintessential collection of DBT songs, it’s still the best overall representation of the band’s career to date. If, for some cruel reason, you can’t make it out to a show, Alive is the closest you will get to recreating the unbeatable experience of Drive-By Truckers live.

The Drive-By Truckers play the 40 Watt Club Feb. 11–13, 2016.