Old 97’s / Damnwells – Bowery Ballroom (New York City, NY)
If the Old 97’s mini-“comeback” tour was intended to prove anything, it was that the foursome is indeed still a band — an issue that could have been in some doubt given frontman Rhett Miller’s 2002 solo album The Instigator and the absence of new 97’s material since 2001’s Satellite Rides.
So maybe it was no accident that when they took the stage for the last night of a nine-city sprint (including two sold-out shows in New York), it was bassist Murry Hammond who shouted out a cheerful “Hello, everybody!” rather than Miller. Or that Hammond took no fewer than five lead vocals during the 90-minute set. Even guitarist Ken Bethea chipping in a new, zydeco-flavored tune (“It goes on the album or I quit, that was the deal,” Bethea deadpanned).
The microphone passing also might have been a function of Miller’s ailing vocal cords — he was notably hoarse after two weeks on the road — but whatever the reason, it served to re-establish the band’s bona fides. Not that Miller was in any danger of being overshadowed; most of the songs were still his, and he rasped and shouted gamely through his cascading bangs.
The set drew widely from the band’s eleven-year history, and was a happy reminder of why the Old 97’s have been missed. From “504” (off 1994’s Hitchhike To Rhome) to “King Of All The World” (from Satellite Rides), they have a fine repertoire of jangling, wistful guitar pop shot through with Texas twang.
Opening were the Damnwells, a New York City quartet with a forthcoming debut on Epic Records following a well-received indie EP. Led by singer-guitarist Alex Dezen (and including former Whiskeytown drummer Steven Terry), the Damnwells play the kind of broadly pleasant if unremarkable alt-rock that littered the radio in the mid-’90s (Gin Blossoms, latter-day Goo-Goo Dolls, etc.). One song’s lyrics referenced “the Devil’s blues,” but the music itself rarely departed from a melodic, midtempo earnestness.
By the time the Old 97’s appeared, the room was packed. The band’s layoff evidently did them no harm with their fans, or with each other. Although some earlier dates on the tour were marked by reports of muffed lines and other signs of rustiness, no kinks were apparent here.
Opening with the Hitchhike track “Hands Off” and following it with the Satellite Rides almost-hit “Rollerskate Skinny”, they played with a loose confidence. Miller, now in his 30s but boyish as ever, windmilled his arms and swiveled his hips like the endearingly awkward adolescent he undoubtedly once was. With Hammond serving as a puckish master of ceremonies and Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples rocking tightly along, they passed the first test of regrouping: They all seemed glad to be there.
The second test came with the new songs introduced at various points in the set. Hammond drew cheers when he announced they were heading to Woodstock in February to record a new album (for New West Records), and the band played the material with a fervor that made it easy to believe they were eager to get into the studio. Miller, who drew cheers of his own when he reported that he (and his wife and child) had moved back to New York after decamping to Los Angeles in the wake of September 11, offered several promising new tunes.
One of them, “Blinding Sheets Of Rain”, was more traditionally and convincingly country than anything on Satellite Rides or Miller’s solo album. It suggested that the band — typically more persuasive as power-poppers than honky-tonkers — might yet grow into their roots. Even better was a contemplation of maturity and fickle celebrity called “The New Kid”. Anticipating the inevitable arrival of fresher faces, Miller sang, “I’ll tell you again/Don’t get too settled in/You will be replaced/You will be replaced…Don’t you see I used to be the new kid?”
The balance of the set contained crowd-pleasers ranging from “West Texas Teardrops” to “Indefinitely” to Hammond’s spirited run through Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”. In the encore, Miller came out alone and did two songs from The Instigator (“Come Around” and “4-Eyed Girl”) before turning the stage over to Hammond for his lovely, lonesome “Valentine” from 1999’s Fight Songs. By the time the band ripped through the Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead” and shut it all down with a barn-burning “Timebomb”, there was little doubt that whoever the new kids may be, they could learn a thing or two from the Old 97’s.