Drive-By Truckers, ‘Welcome 2 Club XIII': Album Review
Like many artists living in Donald Trump's America, Drive-By Truckers spent four years angry, defiant and vocal about their distaste for the near-despotic rule of the former U.S. president. Two hastily assembled albums – The Unraveling and The New OK, both released in 2020 – were the most political from a band that's made a career of balancing social commentary with personal experience. (Their 2001 breakthrough LP Southern Rock Opera explored the Athens, Ga., group's Southern musical roots while delving into deeper racial issues of the region.)
With Trump and a pandemic mostly in the rearview for now, they get down to the business of taking stock of their collective past on Welcome 2 Club XIII, their 14th album of modern Southern rock. And if not a whole lot has changed in the Truckers' guitar-centric approach to their Skynyrd-by-way-of-the-Replacements songs, the nine cuts here chart the growth of a band that played in clubs for occasionally hostile audiences as they developed into one of the best live acts in the world.
As on the Drive-By Truckers' terrific trilogy about growing up below the Mason-Dixon line – Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day (2003) and The Dirty South (2004) – Welcome 2 Club XIII is a loose concept album, this time looking back at the years before their identity was fully formed. "Tonight we're gonna be entertained by our favorite Foghat cover band," Patterson Hood sings on the title track, recalling their indifferently received opening gigs as Adam's House Cat, who get a name-check here.
Their seven-minute opener "The Driver" sets the tone as Hood opens an early tour diary filled with late nights, new towns and youthful optimism. But it's not always fond memories: There are Klan sightings and hazardous icy roads along the way, and, drugs and booze take their toll in "We Will Never Wake You Up in the Morning," a tribute to a late friend. "Wilder Days," the album's six-and-a-half-minute closing song, drops the Drive-By Truckers in the present day while tracing the line from before there were families to support – "we were invincible and unafraid" – to the life that now keeps them on the road for months on end: "The days are getting shorter and the years counting down, and the sun gets dizzy watching us as we go spinning around."
Recorded quickly and with little fuss, Welcome 2 Club XIII sounds raw and weary, as if the past couple of years aren't the only thing that's weighed on the band; the decades have, too. When the Drive-By Truckers spring to life – the throwback "Shake and Pine," Mike Cooley's horn-abetted "Every Single Storied Flameout" – it's a temporary salve. But they never sound defeated. "Have a seat and stay awhile," invites Hood in "Forged in Hell and Heaven Sent." They're still in for the long haul.