The new age of protest music arrived in Tampa on Wednesday night. Kyle Craft opened the show wearing tight black jeans and a coat and tie. His onstage persona is one of calculated mess, a guy just barely holding things together, from his mop of blond in a Reagan-era blow-out to the stage banter about the bully who, earlier that day, had called his 13-year-old sister a lesbian at her school in Louisiana. Not all is well is Kyle Craft’s America, and so he ended his set with a song about its new leader called “Before the Wall”:
“If the wall it goes up and the country comes down/And it’s too tall to get in too late to get out/And the beaches have barbed wire across every shore/Would you lay down your gun then you won’t need it no more.”
The man sitting behind me did not like this song, and their call-and-response played out as between people in two very different churches. When before the song Craft said, “We all just need to love each other,” the man yelled, “Just sing.”
When Craft sang, “If the wall it gets built will I get rich like you?/Can I buy me a fake wife and a ghostwriter too?” the man yelled, “Four years baby!”
When Craft sang, “But, if the wall it stays down and the people stay free/ And it’s not quite as bad as you said it would be/What if I let you be you and you let me be me,” the man yelled that Craft was indeed free—free to go to Canada.
Then Craft walked off stage to big applause, the lights came on, and a roadie uncovered the Drive-By Truckers’ kit, which included a keyboard with a handwritten sign affixed to the side reading BLACK LIVES MATTER. To which Mr. Go-to-Canada snorted that all lives matter and then didn’t return after the intermission.
Which is too bad, because the Drive-By Truckers put on a decent show, and besides, the Black Lives Matter sign was the only overt political statement until the very end (more on that in a moment). This is an odd thing to say, because the Truckers played mostly from their latest album, which is also their most outwardly political. But the acoustics at Tampa Theater, at least beneath the overhang, made the experience a bit like listening to the show through aquarium glass. One of the band’s two singers, Mike Cooley, sang with his nose poking through a curtain of hair that fell over much of his face and his voice in particular became muffled and mumbled up in the room; you would have to be familiar with the story of “Ramon Casiano” to know that the song is about a murder along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The voice of the band’s other singer, Patterson Hood, is soft and sanded down. It came through more clearly on new songs like “Ever South,” a mellow track on the album in which he traces his forebears from Ireland to Ellis Island and down through Appalachia to Alabama that. In person, the band put the drums and the bass at the center of the song, which marked it out from the searing, growling guitars—sometimes four of them facing down the audience—that characterized the rest of the set.
The audience stayed in the seats for most of the show, the few exceptions being when the band started in on favorites from previous albums. “Heathens” was one of these, and again toward the end, after Hood explained that instead of an encore, they would just keep playing until they had to stop and invited everyone down to stand in front of the stage. The band ended with “Let There Be Rock,” twin catalogs of Hood’s teenage fuck-ups and the rock bands he saw or didn’t see while growing up in Alabama in the late ’70s: Ozzy Osbourne, Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Blue Oyster Cult, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special.
Where Kyle Craft’s response to the election is to perform a song that is literally about the president elect and his wall, the Truckers resist by gnashing away at their guitars. Their post-election America is not a joyful place, either, and the encore-that-wasn’t continued with an audience sing-along of “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” a 13-year-old song that once again has something new to say.
Finally, Cooley peered down from behind his Professor Snape bangs. He had left most of the talking to Hood throughout the evening.
“Are you fucking scared,” he asked the audience. “Are you fucking scared? Don’t be fucking scared. Be fucking angry.” The rock star’s coda, perhaps, to President Obama’s exhortation of “Don’t boo—vote.”
When they lit into Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” it was a lefty band following in the grand tradition of musicians who have regarded themselves as protectors of American ideals, which ought to be something that Mr. Go-to-Canada could get behind if only he had stuck around long enough to receive the message.