Just this once let’s not be tentative: The Drive-By Truckers are the best band in America, have been since at least 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera” and will be as long as principals Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have access to pens, paper and guitars.
It’s not just the Skynyrd-meets-Nirvana musical aesthetic. Those two are great songwriters, and they brought a bunch of their prime stuff to the Scoot Inn Thursday night. Want to open with a song about a musician with AIDS who “can’t die now ‘cause I’ve got another show to do?” Hood’s got your “Living Bubba” right here. Cooley, the more elliptical and Dylanesque writer of the pair, answered with “Gravity’s Gone,” which feels like the ambivalent memoir of a middling rock star as he ponders cause, effect, opportunity and the curse of history in couplets like, “Those little demons ain’t the reasons/For the bruises on your soul.”
To paraphrase Faulkner, the past isn’t even past for this band. It’s just on the other side of the dashboard about to crash into the windshield. GG Allin and Skynyrd’s doomed final flight were revisited Thursday night and Hood, ever the populist, pulled out “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” about a guy who’s just getting by and knows it’s only going to get worse. Man of the people, that guy.
It’s been years since Jason Isbell made a forced departure from the band (whatever happened to him, anyway?) and nobody grieved harder than me for the loss of his voice and his songs to the outfit, but DBT are as good as they’ve ever been. Their recent CD “English Oceans,” which for the first time had more songs by Cooley than Hood, is easily one of their best. And as if to galvanize the fact that they’re a volatile and reliable live act, they just put out a multivolume live set, semi-ironically titled “It’s Great to Be Alive.” (Wait, three CDs and no “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac?” Scandalous.)
And isn’t it, though? It was great to be at the Scoot Thursday night, outside in a manageable crowd, not standing in line for the portajohn or Mighty Cone at ACL Fest. And then just when you thought you’d forgotten all your troubles, they shut it down with Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” which they’ve been covering for years, a reminder that we all could be one encore away from the final curtain, from angels and fuselage and trees and a jet-eating swamp. By beginning and ending with songs about death, they made the crowd feel great to be alive.
In the right hands, dead people can be fine material for a rock ’n’ roll band. And you can dance to it.
Drive-By Truckers are at Gruene Hall tonight.