Ranchero Brothers – Barley House (Dallas, TX)
It’s almost always a special treat to see a band that has worked its way up the ladder of success play a hometown gig at a small venue (under an assumed name to keep large crowds at bay). Dallas’ Old 97’s have made quite a name for themselves in the past couple years, releasing acclaimed albums on Bloodshot and Elektra and playing medium-to-large-sized clubs nationwide. On this night, 97’s frontman Rhett Miller and bassist Murry Hammond — billed as the Ranchero Brothers — treated a modest midweek crowd to a preview of several songs slated to appear on the next Old 97’s album, tentatively scheduled for release in the spring.
With just guitar and bass, the songs understandably exhibited a more folk-rock sound than the Old 97’s albums; at times, the music suggested the Old 97’s filtered through the Everly Brothers. Some of the songs seemed they might sound best with just a banjo or a mandolin ornamenting them, while others will demand the full Old 97’s treatment.
The most striking element of these new songs, however, was just how close to complete they already sound. Strong, memorable melodies and close country harmonies competed for attention with evocative new lyrics. Those lyrics suggest a darker, more introspective direction for the forthcoming album. The easy barroom banter of “Barrier Reef” has given way to lines such as “Talking to you, girl, is like long division.” Other new songs hinted that success hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride: In “Jagged”, they sing “I’d give anything not to feel so jagged”; another song sings of a “sunset on the tomb.” Yet another, dark enough to prompt a disclaimer from the duo “not to try suicide”, sets mournful music to lyrics such as, “I once thought about suicide/Parts of me had already died.”
But there were plenty of upbeat songs as well, and Miller and Hammond clearly enjoyed themselves. Their between-song banter occasionally offered some hints about the history of the new songs, and were frequently mixed with a dose of good humor. One song “used to be a song about trains, but now it’s a love song”; another was introduced with, “We’re shooting for a Monkees sound on this one.” One or two of the songs seemed to be reworkings of older Old 97’s material. The overall format for the evening was (1) play the new songs; (2) take requests; and (3) play the new songs a second time.
The new material was well-received by the audience, but the highlight of the evening for many was the “request” portion of the performance. Veering between older favorites such as “Doreen” and a great, folky version of “Barrier Reef” that had at least half the bar crowd singing along word-for-word, the Rancheros gave the audience an evening to remember. Perhaps more importantly, the new songs gave their fans something to look forward to next year.
The strongly positive response to their work as a duo has encouraged Miller and Hammond to make the Ranchero Brothers an “official project.” Hammond says Elektra has given the duo its approval to record an album under the Ranchero Brothers name (likely to consist of other material than the songs that were played on this night, which remain intended for inclusion on the next 97’s album).