We arrived at Lipscomb University's Collins Alumni Auditorium around 7:45 p.m. to find the place already jammed full of people who would otherwise likely be quickly escorted from campus grounds. It was a veritable Who's Who of campus-code-of-conduct violations, with textbook definitions of "hairstyles, body-piercing(s), and tattoos ... so outstanding or numerous that they become a distraction" overwhelming the scant few actual Lipscomb students in attendance. Which, frankly, is fucking awesome.
Outsider singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston tottered out to the front of the stage right at 8 p.m. with a small electric guitar and a book of lyrics in tow. The thing you need to know about Johnston, which is something that has sadly come to define him as a performer, is that he is unbelievably fragile. He bleeds fragility on stage, so much so that it can be hard to watch. The tone of the audience was reverential in a way we've never seen — not just because of the magnitude of seeing a figure like Johnston live, but also because it felt almost like the collective conscious was thinking that one wrong move could break the poor guy. In fairness, that feeling wasn't completely without merit.
After banging his way through "Casper the Friendly Ghost" and a handful of other tunes on his lonesome, Johnston retired briefly to let his one-night-only backing band of Lipscomb kids set up for what will assuredly be the coolest story they're ever going to get out of their college experience. The Spin would never encourage young people to drop out of college, but you guys should probably drop out of college.
As the night wore on, Johnston's fragility became more and more evident. It started with a tremor in his right arm and ended with Johnston violently shaking the mic with both hands while his impossibly young band tried to keep up. We didn't hear "Devil Town" — which we'd like to believe is the song that the accordion player tried to steer Johnston toward — but over the course of 45 minutes, Johnston convincingly pulled off a slew of hits (in as much as Johnston has hits) like "Walking the Cow" and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down." Our favorite moment was when he sang about how rock 'n' roll saved his soul in the middle of a university where dancing was once frowned upon.
After an encore of "True Love Will Find You in the End," Johnston left the stage, and like that, it was 9 p.m. and the show was over. It was, like Johnston's songs themselves, a beautiful, erratic bummer of a show. We may not have had the religious experience some of the people in the crowd enjoyed, but damn, guys. It's a good thing we spent 25 minutes lost on campus afterward, trying to find our car, because this was the kind of show that needed processing.
What with the cold weather and all, we were ready to wedge ourselves in among the throng of hyped-up Drive-By Truckers fans who had congregated at Cannery Ballroom on Saturday night. Drink in hand, The Spin found a suitable patch of brick wall and nearly spilled it as we began dancing to the lewd but good-natured sounds of Bobby Keys and the Suffering Bastards, who had just hit the stage. They may be bastards, but they weren't suffering — Keys is one of rock's greatest saxophone players and exponents of rockin' good times, and they didn't let us down.
Like so many great players, Keys is known for his work as a sideman: He has an unmistakable sound on records by such esteemed wild men as Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Dion and, of course, The Rolling Stones. The Cannery is a few miles away from the south of France, where Keys laid down some torn and frayed sax solos with the Stones back in their Exile on Main St. days, but you could close your eyes (and hold on to your gin-and-tonic) and imagine you were grooving with the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band in their glory days. The Texas native presided over his Suffering Bastards with the benevolent but naughty air of a man for whom rock is the very breath of life — the man's grin is as infectious as his voice, which put The Spin in mind of some old-fashioned carnival huckster.
"It's hard for a fat boy to get his breath," Keys said right before he and the Bastards ripped into a funky version of Wayne Carson's "The Letter," which was a hit for The Box Tops and Joe Cocker. "I was about 80 pounds slighter back then, and now I'm a beached whale gasping for air." His solo on "The Letter" made it clear that Keys, along with bandmates Dan Baird and Chark Kinsolving — guitarists extraordinaire — still has it in spades. Driven by drummer Brad Pemberton, the band played extra funky. You could even call it slinky if you wanted to. The Suffering Bastards did right by another great rock 'n' roll hit, Dion's "The Wanderer," a 1961 record that featured a young Keys on saxophone, and they turned John Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" into a good-time party number.
After a short interlude that gave us a chance to refresh our drink and calculate the statistical possibility that this was the first time a lot of the crowd had ever heard "Soul Serenade," on came the Truckers. Having come of a certain age to the strains of the Truckers' post-boogie rock mythology, we were ready to see one of the great bands of the age do their thing. And they did.
Looking intense but relaxed, Patterson Hood ambled onstage with fellow frontman Mike Cooley, whose deadpan and slightly quizzical stage presence has always been the perfect complement to Hood's restless manner. These days, the Truckers feature the slide playing of John Neff along with the keyboards of Jay Gonzalez, and the band tore into a slide-heavy "The Fourth Night of My Drinking." Next up was Cooley singing "Where the Devil Don't Stay," a song from The Dirty South, which further inspired an audience already doing various dances of defiance and joy. Gonzalez's raging organ playing gave heft to Cooley's lyrics about skinning wildcats and playing poker over a stump in the woods.
The Spin has played a little poker in the woods, but never over a stump that we can remember, and we aren't skinning any wildcats. Maybe the Truckers have done all this and then some, because they played with absolute assurance and finesse — Hood and Cooley's rhythm guitars created a feather bed for Neff and Gonzalez to lie in, while drummer Brad Morgan drove the group without mercy. On nearly every song, the group displayed amazing twin- and triple-guitar interplay.
Someone in the crowd offered Hood something — maybe it was liquor, maybe it was something else, since The Spin couldn't see too well in the pulsating mass of Trucker maniacs. "I always come prepared," Hood said, and crossed his arms over his chest. "I got my own bottle, but I approve of the sentiment." Then it was on to an impossibly soulful version of "A World of Hurt" that led into "3 Dimes Down" and the closer, "Hell No, I Ain't Happy."
Of course, we knew it was far from over: The Truckers came back out for a six-song encore that, if anything, eclipsed what they had already done. The Spin talked to some Trucker fans who had come down to the show from Louisville, who assured us that this is how the band has been playing on the current tour — as if their life depended upon it, but with a seething grace that makes it clear they're not only a great Southern rock band, great lyricists and canny songwriters, but one of the last true psychedelic bands.