Live Review: The Old 97s
Old 97s—The Pageant—St. Louis, MO—July 18, 2009
Where were you in ’94? I was in a dark dungeon-basement bar called Cicero’s in St. Louis, a place with rock walls and exposed, dripping pipes. We headed there after reading that a young country-rock band from Dallas called the Old 97’s were playing, and when we descended into the club just before showtime, only one table was occupied, and those were the dudes in the band. And they put on a hell of show that night, playing to twenty people. I bought a copy of their debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, which they were selling out of their coat pockets. Whiskeytown hadn’t released an album yet. Neither had Wilco or Son Volt or Robbie Fulks or BR5-49. The Old 97’s couldn’t quite have known it, but thousands of ‘ 80s alternative kids who always claimed that they hated country music were suddenly stealing their parents’ old Johnny Cash records, and insurgent country was on the cusp of a movement. And here were four boys in a nearly-empty St. Louis dive in the middle of winter, banging out a feverish show of hillbilly punk and playing back-to-back Bing Crosby and Ernest Tubb covers.
Now, fifteen years on, the Old 97’s returned to St. Louis last night to rip it up at The Pageant, quite a step up from Cicero’s, a year after the release of the band’s latest, Blame It On Gravity, and just a month after frontman Rhett Miller’s new self-titled album dropped. It was an “Evening with the Old 97s” show, as Murry Hammond and Rhett Miller both played half-hour solo sets before the full band took the stage. Hammond played a lovely set that was 60% cowboy yodeling, 20% gospel hymns, 10% acapella reveries, 10% accordion, and 100% great. Miller came out and played solo-acoustic renditions of his new solo material, and, if anything, these songs are more effective in this setting, stripping away the record’s opulent production and getting down to what Miller does best—strumming and singing (and dancing).
The Olds aren’t old, hovering around forty now, all with kids of their own, and their songs carry the freight of life experiences, much of it on the road, but the group has lost zilch of its live fire. As much as I dislike the apostrophe in the band’s name, they’ve crafted seven solid studio records, but everyone reading this sentence knows that onstage is where the 97’s have secured their legend. Miller is a rock-star cyclone. Dude has moves: the rock-a-bye-baby, the whiplash head throttle, the stutter-stop shimmy, the from-the-elbow windmill strum (that’s his moonwalk). His hair is cut in The Rachel these days, giving his samba an extra flare. But despite Miller’s antics, his acoustic guitar is the piston that drives this train—it’s cranked, and his machine-gun strumming is key to the band’s boogie. Elsewhere, Telecaster-loyalist Ken Bethea hangs out mostly on the first three frets of his axe—that’s where the twang is—sniping the tunes with surfy runs and later igniting the wilder side of the band with distorted kerangs of blue-streak power chords. Drummer Philip Peebles is a classic roadhouse slapper, and his tom-centric piledrives and galloping snare are central to the band’s signature twang-punk chug. And don’t forget Murry Hammond, the hip-to-be-square bassist, who has moves of his own, and supplies the honky-tonk foil to Miller’s lush-pop instincts.
Murry sang three songs tonight, the poignant “Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue” from Gravity, the hot-stepping hoe down of “West TX Teardrops,” and a crowd-tickling Hag cover in “Mama Tried.” Even Bethea provided a rare lead vocal on “Coahuila,” after thanking the crowd for supporting them all these years. But the night belonged to Rhett Miller, who sang with unhinged energy, unable to contain his punctuating yelps and hollers, across two hours and 25 songs. The momentum flagged just barely at the beginning of the encores when Miller came back out alone for acoustic readings for two selection from his solo albums, but the band came back out with ferocious runs through “Doreen” (“The guy that plays the banjo keeps handing me the Old Crow”–genius) and “Timebomb” that finally KOd the crowd. Toward the end of the show, Miller also thanked St. Louis and mentioned Cicero’s way back when, remembering hitting his head on the club’s low ceiling until he bled. Rock and roll.
1.Won’t Be Home
3.Dance with Me
5.West TX Teardrops
6.No Baby I
10.Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue
12.I Need to Know Where I Stand
14.I Will Remain
18.Big Brown Eyes
19.The Easy Way
21.Nobody Says I Love You
24.Book of Poems