Drive-By Truckers and JD McPherson Rock Summerfest

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Drive-By Truckers and JD McPherson Rock Summerfest
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Drive-By Truckers delivered a cathartic return to the spirit of rock and roll on Saturday, as the band played Summerfest’s Johnson Control World Stage. Patterson Hood was transformed into a tent show preacher held aloft by a wall of sound. Hood and fellow guitarist Mike Cooley alternated vocal duties in a headlining full-tilt concert that provided the joyful release that live music on a Saturday night can offer.

What a difference a year makes. With Summerfest’s protocol in place, this was nearly a full house. On “72 (This Highway’s Mean),” Cooley sang of the rigors of the road, then interjected “How much I missed it!” With an airtight band, Hood and Cooley freely traversed the band’s history onward from 1998’s AIDs-era lament “The Living Bubba.”

Drive-By Truckers’ songs often come across as loud short stories, driven by the myth and the reality of the American South. The band’s key album, Southern Rock Opera, is partially built around the tale of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young’s “feud.” They went one better on Saturday, covering the late Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” which references Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” 

Bassist Mike Patton took lead vocals for a rousing cover of the Ramones “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” And as if to confound expectations, the band’s final number ended with an effect-driven psychedelic jam that might have been meant to revoke their alt-country merit badge. The improvisation would have been right at home in Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd—one by one each member left the stage with his amplifier still cycling and looping as the instruments played themselves.

Music festivals are set up to run on tight schedules. So, when JD McPherson’s sound check ran long on Saturday, fans started buzzing because they knew it meant eating into the set. But once everything was dialed in, the band hit like greased lightning. McPherson’s rockabilly-meets-Bo Diddley sound takes advantage of his heavily temelo’d guitar. This band plays what might have been called crazy outer space music 50 years ago and it still aims over the heads of the quiff-headed hipsters quaffing brews and hard seltzers.

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With a band driven by upright bass and topped off by saxophone and piano, former middle-school teacher McPherson had the crowd on its feet and in the palm of his hand from the first note and never let up.

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