Okay, I’m getting older. I’ll admit it, sure. But when Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ offers up the band’s most beloved song “Straight To Hell” in the middle of their set ‘in case you have to go to work tomorrow but you want to hear this song’, I take that as a challenge–though I’m still young enough that sticking around until midnight wasn’t much of a stretch. To be fair I did not, in fact, have to work the next day anyway.
In my 25 or so years of going to small, smelly clubs to see both good and bad bands play music deep into the night for little fame or fortune, there probably hasn’t been another I have seen as often over the years as Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. I’ve never been a rabid fan, member of the fan club, etc., but their shows have happened at just the right times that I’ve seen them play in four or five different cities and multiple venues over that time frame. So it’s with no shortage of experience that I say tonight’s set was one of the most affecting experiences I’ve had with them, ever.
Maybe it’s that getting older thing again; I was at the show with my wife (who is a bigger DnC fan than I realized) but I knew only a handful of others in the crowd. It has been a rough year personally, professionally, and spiritually on several levels for me, so this was our chance to close out the year, ‘rock out’ and forget some of those troubles for a night, the way a good night of live music is supposed to do that for you.
When Kinney strapped on his acoustic guitar for the first time early in the set and started strumming the opening chords to Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” I was already slackjawed with surprise; then he had to go and dedicate the tune to the late Art Boerke, and by the end of the first verse I had tears streaming down my face, right in the middle of the club. Not necessarily for Boerke, though his was a hard loss for many in our local music community who credit the former booking agent for the legendary Rockafellas bar with bringing in all those great bands who helped shape their musical identity. No, it was more for the sentiment expressed in the song, one of ‘I’m growing up but I’m not going to go gently into that good night’. We all have to grow up sometime, but it’s not something we do willingly in most cases. Then along come the kids, the 40 hour work week, the bills, and all those responsibilities whether we asked for them or not. Growing up may be inevitable, but Kinney and company are proving it doesn’t have to happen without a fight, and it doesn’t have to take the fight out of you when it does happen.
The one thing I forget from time to time about DnC is the band’s musical range; casual fans latch on to the aforementioned unofficial southern rock anthem and the harder rocking material from the Fly Me Courageous era, but they are just as likely any more to launch into a Nugent-style drone riff, some slide guitar blues, or a beautiful acoustic folk melody. Fully two-thirds of the band’s set tonight, in fact, was probably unfamiliar to any but the most diehard fan; it’s to the band’s credit that the audience stuck with them throughout regardless of familiarity with the song selection. How many, I wonder, have a copy of the solo album Kinney did with Anton Fier of the Golden Palominos a few years ago, A Good Country Mile, and knew that title track when he played a beautiful, slow-building acoustic version of it? Even I had to go look that one back up when my wife asked where it came from; I’d heard it before but not like they played it tonight.
There’s a new lead guitarist in the band (Aaron Lee Tasjan, who played on that recent solo album with Kinney), and I’m not sure if the drummer is the same as the one I saw them with last year either; the beauty of the DnC machine, however, is that as long as Kinney and bassist Tim Nielsen are on board it’s still going to be Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. Nielsen, in fact, may just be the band’s secret weapon—it’s his bass that anchors everything, whether he’s hitting higher notes or chugging along the bottom end, and he does it all with the traditional four-string Fender model he’s used forever.
It’s a joy to this old rock critic’s heart to see and hear a band that’s both comfortable with their identity and still hungry enough to keep creating, keep changing things up, this late into the game. As the best music does, it inspires me to keep my own standards high and not settle for just any old rock ‘n’ roll when it can be and is this good, at least this time.