While visiting the family Down South for the holidays, I had the opportunity to revisit one of the scenes of my misspent youth to see one of the bands who provided the soundtrack for said youth.
If you don’t know about Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, they formed in Atlanta in 1985, joining the proud ranks of Southern Rock– a noble fraternity that spans from Lynyrd Skynyrd to R.E.M. to the B-52′s– but you already know that. Although they released their first album, Scarred but Smarter, in 1986, they broke through to somewhat mainstream success with 1992′s Fly Me Courageous, mainly on the strength of the title track and “Build a Fire.”
Since those days, they’ve remained what they always were, a hardworking rock band churning out albums and playing live for a devoted fan base. Their cult popularity and distinctive sound have earned them comparisons to The Replacements in more than one publication. It’s an apt comparison in terms of career trajectory — you know, without the breaking up and vague animosity part — but the sound of Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ isn’t really comparable to anything else, even when they’re channeling pretty much every style you can name. These guys play fast and loose with genre: a little glam metal, a little punk, a little country, a little alternative, a little blues. Whatever they’re playing, they sound like Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ above all else.
I caught them live at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem, NC, on December 27, kind of as a fluke. I’d just finished reviewing Stonebreed’s debut album, which, for reasons I can’t fully explain, put me in the mind of this band that had been omnipresent in the background of my university years. As one does when looking up old friends from college, I went to Google to see what they’re up to now. “Holy crap! They’re playing tomorrow night! Only an hour away!” At Ziggy’s — another old college friend (of course bars are friends — but that’s for a completely different post).
After a fun and entertaining set from Charleston, SC-based roots rockers (I like to think of roots rock as folk with attitude) the Blue Dogs, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ took the stage poised to tear off the roof. Sadler Vaden on lead guitar is the most recent addition to the band, and his proficiency combined with Kevn Kinney on rhythm brings life to the jangling, bluesy, rock sound that has become part of the band’s trademark.
So they began by tearing into a track from their first 2012 EP, Songs from the Laundromat, “Ain’t Waitin’ on Tomorrow,” which opens with a hard guitar riff shored up by Tim Nielsen with a killer bass line. And then there’s that voice. If there’s a signature for Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, it’s Kevin Kinney’s rasping wail.
Here’s a little taste of that sound. It’s much better when you’re standing in front of the amp stack.
The strength of the new material continued with an upbeat performance of the punk-influenced “Hot Wheels” off the second 2012 EP, Songs about Cars, Space, and the Ramones, with fun surf-rock verses and a Ramones-inspired chorus echoing the joys (sort of) in the life of a teenage boy.
But as I said, this is a band that has proven over the last 25-plus years that they have an incredible range of influences. The rock hits from the early days were in place with a vibrate-you-through-the-floor performance of “The Innocent,” as well as the country-tinged anthem “Straight to Hell,” and my top contender for greatest rock ballad ever, the dark, existential “Let’s Go Dancing.” These tracks sound as fresh today as they did at their time of release, which speaks to the quality of the songwriting and the consummate musicianship of this group.
If you’re eager to hear more, archive.org hosts recordings of other performance from this year, though this particular show doesn’t appear to be among them. While Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ doesn’t have any more immediate dates scheduled, you can catch Kinney on tour with a number of other musicians (including Peter Buck, of R.E.M.) playing dates in New York, all over the South, and in the Netherlands in the months to come. But even though you might not be able to see them live until later in 2013, you can (and should) still take a listen to the two EP’s — full reviews of these, and an extra added bonus slideshow from the concert coming soon.