Hillbilly Highway – Cruising the Interstates to First Avenue

by Sheldon Birnie

The Hillbilly Highway crosses many borders. Provincial, state, international: it doesn’t give a fuck. I cruised myself down the Pembina Highway to America last week in order to check out two of my favourite bands — the Drive-By Truckers and Those Darlins — play at First Avenue in Minneapolis. The trip was short, but sweet as fucking sin.

The drive was good too; the highway open and free of police, once I’d submitted to a full search of my rental vehicle at the U.S. line. Lucky for me, I’d ditched my roaches on Roslyn, and the accommodating fellow in uniform informed me that my back-left tire had a screw wedged in it, something I’d never thought to look for.

After a brief stop in Pembina, N.D., I was back in the game. I blasted through North Dakota, over the Red and into Minnesota with music pumping. DBT, Deep Dark Woods, Tim Hus and Fred Eaglesmith kept me going most of the way. I’d scan the dials while switching discs. You get more country stations the further south you travel, with stations like The Truck, The Farm, and The Country.

First Avenue is an awesome venue in downtown Minneapolis. Many gods have graced its stage, and many bodies have packed the joint over the years, slugging booze, pissing and partying. Tonight would be another one of those packed, partying nights, and it was a Tuesday.

Those Darlins took the stage around nine. The crowd was stuffed up close to the stage, but most were just waiting on the Truckers. Still, the Darlins delivered. Apparently the group was just getting off a week or two of fighting various flus, but it didn’t show in their performance. A tight set, with tunes heavy off Screws Get Loose, but including a couple covers, some new tracks and a couple off their first disc.

When the Truckers came out, people went nuts. The place was packed, and the ratio of rods-to-broads was probably ten-to-one: a total sausage party. I was one of many dudes wearing denim, shit-kickers, and a bad haircut. These weird Americans were my kind of people.

DBT started off with “I Do Believe” from Go-Go Boots, and proceeded to pound out two hours of rock before taking a short break. Highlights from my end included raw versions of old gems “Love Like This,” “The Living Bubba,” and “Buttholeville,” as well as some great shit off more recent records, like “Birthday Boy,” “Pulaski” and “Everybody Needs Love.”

As per usual, DBT came back on after the crowd had hooted and hollered for at least ten minutes, and ground out another hour of even heavier gold. The show came to a peak with the classic “Let There Be Rock” off Southern Rock Opera, which was followed shortly after by a killer cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.” Nikki Darlin came on stage for that, jamming and ripping leads like a goddamn Nashwille Valkyrie.

On the road, though, you lose folks all the time. It’s the way she goes. Patterson Hood dedicated the night’s show to his uncle George A — about whom Hood wrote “The Sands of Iwo Jima” — during the intro to that same tune. George A had died the previous day, at something like the age of 92. Hood brought his uncle up again, adding a verse to the end of “People Who Died” for his beloved late great uncle, and proceeded to slam from an open bottle of tequila, which he shared with a couple of the rowdier fans at the front of the stage.

My ears rang the whole drive back to Canada, which I began early the next morning. The fried eggs, toast and American fries I ate in Alexandria later that afternoon saved my life. I listened to Go-Go Boots about three times in a row, leaving Minneapolis in my rearview. It had been a great couple of days. God bless America.

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