Personnel: Ralph Carney (tenor saxophone); Darren Johnston (trumpet); Alan Williams (trombone).
Audio Mixer: David Barbe.
Recording information: The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA.
Photographers: Jay Blakesberg; Greg Chow.
One of the reasons the Drive-By Truckers have matured into one of America's finest rock & roll bands is ambition; they're solid players and write great songs, but just as important, they take storytelling seriously, and when they make an album, they strive to do more than just serve up a bunch of new songs. Most DBT releases aren't specifically concept albums, but nearly all of them have a thematic consistency in which the individual songs cohere into a larger framework. With this in mind, it makes sense that the band would want to do something more elaborate than the run-of-the-mill live disc, and 2015's It's Great to Be Alive!, recorded during a three-night stand at the the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, California in the fall of 2014, is an oversized (over three hours on three CDs or five LPs) look at the band's body of work so far, with a set list that reaches back before the beginning ("Runaway Train" was a tune Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley cut for their pre-DBT band Adam's House Cat) all the way up to English Oceans, the album the group released just a few months before these shows. The Drive-By Truckers have always prided themselves on a butt-kicking live show, so it's a bit of a surprise that It's Great to Be Alive! relies so strongly on dynamics, dialing back the tempo and impact of some of the tunes rather than making this set the full-on blowout some fans would expect. It's Great to Be Alive! focuses less on the sweat and fire of a live gig than on the songs, as Hood and Cooley draw their portraits of folks trying to make the best of life's situations, which is often a harder and more desperate task than one would imagine. The relatively subdued attack does make more room for Cooley and Hood's vocals, and both are in strong voice here, and if these performances are often a bit less finely nuanced than the studio originals, nearly everything here sounds more passionate, and the musicianship is excellent, especially Cooley and Hood's dueling guitar work, Jay Gonzalez's keyboards, and Brad Morgan's drumming, which is endlessly implacable and full of lean, thoughtful groove (if this band has a secret weapon, it's Morgan). If It's Great to Be Alive! doesn't rock with the usual fury of a Drive-By Truckers live set, the band knows when and where to kick out the jams (especially on the three uptempo Southern Rock Opera numbers on disc three), and this 198-minute marathon leaves no doubt that this constantly evolving band is still growing and shifting and putting new perspectives on its music. It's Great to Be Alive! is a bit less than the definitive document of the live DBT experience, but if you want to know why this is a great band and how good it can be on-stage, this set will tell you just about everything you need to know. ~ Mark Deming