The southern soul rockers crank things up a level, but the solitary Josh T Pearson steals the show
As the golden fairy lights stretched across the black drapes of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival marquee twinkle sweetly, and the faintly decadent candelabra sway in the bank holiday breeze, the sense of anticipation in the air is palpable.
Belfast awaits the arrival of Drive-By Truckers for their debut Northern Irish appearance, and frankly expectations for a night of good time southern rock and soul are high. Before Patterson Hood and his hairy herd of band mates get to holler 'Hello Belfast!' and party like its 1972, however, there’s the small matter of support act Josh T Pearson to consider.
As the man behind Last Of The Country Gentlemen, the finest album of intense gothic country break up songs since... well ever basically. The Texan songwriter’s stock is high right now, and there are more than a few of us in the beery throng keen to see the man in action.
In a dusty black suit and ten year-old beard, he cuts quite a foreboding figure positioned centre stage with only an acoustic guitar for company. It’s an odd setting for late night confessionals, to be honest, and you can’t help thinking this is hardly his audience either.
But, armed with songs as strong as 'Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ' and a stand up comic’s sense of the absurd - which results in some fabulously rambling comic asides - Pearson soon has the several hundred gathered down the front eating out of his huge, preacher like hands.
Mining the highlights of the aforementioned debut album, the former Lift To Experience frontman thrums away at his acoustic and booms out his heart cracking stories with an intensity that demands rapt attention from all but the most diehard of Drive-By fans.
Early on he jests that the luxurious length of most of his compositions, combined with his between song meanderings, means he’ll probably only get about two songs delivered in his allotted 30 minute support slot. But by the time he shambles off stage we’ve actually heard four and Pearson has added several hundred more devotees to his admirable cause. Result.
Which sets the stage nicely for Drive-By Truckers to take things up a level, rock and roll wise at least. If Pearson’s album sees a man on the up, the Georgia-based rockers latest release Go-Go Boots sees them rather awkwardly standing at something of a cross roads.
It’s well known that the band are long term admirers of that slinky Muscle Shoals soul sound of their homeland (well, three of the band’s homeland at least), but traditionally their default setting on record usually errs to the heavier, riff-tastic side of southern boogie, with the funkier aspects of that sound relegated to little more than an afterthought.
Go-Go Boots is the first time that soul vibe has taken precedence, and while old Otis Redding fans like me are delighted at the change there’s a sense that old school admirers might be less so. This is a band who have soaked up the southern rock tradition of Skynyrd and marinated themselves in the freewheeling juice of 70’s Stones and Faces, and that’s what most of the audience want to hear tonight.
A mighty rendition mid set of the new album’s Wurlitzer fuelled title track, a powerful charge through 'Everybody Needs Love' and 'Dancing Ricky' (the sole vocal performance on the night from bassist Shonna Tucker) nail that soul/rock gumbo perfectly, but it’s the straight ahead material that really sparks a reaction.
A minor sea of balding pates and the odd poodle rock hairdo bounces up and down to old favourites like 'Let There Be Rock', with an impressive sense of skew-whiff timing. Sometimes the resolutely single tempo material melds into one Counting Crows style mush, but Patterson Hood - a fine, garrulous front man who claims to be enamoured with the Belfast accent - just about pulls it back from the abyss every time.
Guitar chords tumble from speakers with that easy rolling charm, Hood and Mike Cooley swop vocal duties and classic rock riffage with impressive ease, and the band’s heavyweight back catalogue is pilfered from in a pleasingly scattershot manner.
Despite that, when the depressingly early bank holiday curfew of 11 rolls around and the band roll off stage to a rousing reception, it’s hard to shake a slight feeling of disappointment. Drive By Truckers are an admirable rock and roll combo with a pleasing penchant for the sweetly soulful, but if it’s something truly special that you want to see then Josh T Pearson holds all the cards right now.
Check out our What's On listings for more information on Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival events.