Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Old 97's @ The Trocadero 07/30/2008

If anything else, the Old 97's are certainly reliable. It doesn't sound very rock 'n' roll to describe a band as "reliable", but there are worse things for a which a band can aspire. Now in their 15th year together with 7 albums + a handful of solo albums and side projects by singer/guitarist Rhett Miller and singer/bassist Murry Hammond intermingled, they have proven their worth. Their experiments are minimal and their live shows never disappoint. Their pace has also slowed down a bit since all of the band members have reached middle age and are married with children now and living in different parts of the country, away from their native Dallas. So every 3 years or so, they release another album of pleasant, easily-digestible country- and punk-influenced pop/rock. Like I said, there are worse things a band can be these days.

A recent review of their new album in Rolling Stone described the band as "four Texans raised on the Beatles and Johnny Cash in equal measures, whose shiny melodies, and fatalistic character studies, do their forefathers proud." I think that is very apt. I mean, after all, they did take their name from Johnny Cash's "The Wreck of the Old 97." Although if you scratch the surface, you will also see their other influences - the Pixies, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, the Replacements, etc. They've evolved over the years from their sweat and beer drenched country punk sound into something that is more pleasing to AAA radio.

Singer/guitarist Rhett Miller was a folk prodigy in high school in the artsy Deep Ellum section of Dallas back in the late 80's....or as critic Robert Christgau once noted of Miller's early career, that this was back when "the lead singer of Nirvana still spelled his name 'Kurdt Kobain'." He released an album of folk-inspired pop songs in 1989 called Mythologies and then recorded another that was never released (but it has circulated on bootlegs for about 10 years). After a label change and a bit of a career makeover in the early 90's, he hooked up with the rest of the band (singer/bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Phillip Peoples) and they became the Old 97's.

Their first 2 records - 1993's Hitchhike to Rhome and 1995's Wreck Your Life were steeped in folk and bluegrass traditions, with the requisite nods to the kind of hard-drinking, outlaw "murder" ballads about love, drinking, heartbreak, and revenge for which Johnny Cash was famous for writing. There were elements of all of the above-mentioned influences present, but it leaned most heavily on Cash and other bluegrass/country pioneers like Buck Owens. But it wasn't until 1997's Too Far To Care, that the band really hit their stride. That album stands as one of the best of the alt/country or country/punk genre during the 1990's. It combined all of what they did previously, while adding more pop and punk to the mix. And that album also is where the band shifted and started moving in a more overt pop/rock direction, capitalizing on Rhett Miller's witty lyrics and infectious pop riffs (not to mention his Teen Beat pinup good looks).

So after a string of fair to great albums starting with 1999's Fight Songs (good), 2001's Satellite Rides (great), and 2004's Drag It Up (fair), with solo records in between, the band returned a few months ago with Blame It on Gravity, which stands up pretty well compared to it's previous work. I'd say it's at least as good as Fight Songs.

And with the exception of U2, can you name another band in the last quarter-century who has been together as long as the Old 97's have without: a)breaking up or b)having original band members leave the band at some point even if they do eventually return? I can't. It's especially rare for a band like Old 97's to settle in to being a cult favorite with a niche audience and still remain together, without at least one band member either getting sick of the write/record/tour grind and wanting to call it quits or someone like Miller leaving the band to chase the brass ring of solo stardom. You can tell that these guys genuinely like each other's company as much as they like playing together. And that camaraderie is generally what keeps bands together over many years.

But forget about their studio recording biography because the Old 97's are a band that you need to see play live to really appreciate their strengths. They are for the most part a glorified bar band. And they carry with them that swagger and that crowd-pleasing attitude even though they have been headlining in large theatres in every major market in the country for most of this decade. To use a sports reference, at the end of an Old 97's show you can tell the band has "left it all out on the field", as the guys are drenched in sweat and look exhausted. They aren't saving anything for the next show or the party afterwards.

And now that they have around 100 songs in their catalog, they can't help but start repeating themselves a little. I noticed a few different times during this show that it took me about 5-10 seconds to recognize the song at first, because the intro sounded like it could be a handful of their other songs.

This was the first time I have ever seen them play one of my favorites - "Nite Club" live. On their last few tours, they seem to play at least 7 new songs at every show + almost all of the old crowd favorites. And then they also try to revive 5 or 10 older songs for that particular tour that they haven't played in awhile. So the shows are always unique. Based on what I have read, on this tour they have revived "Nite Club", "Alone So Far" (also the first time I ever saw them play that), "The Other Shoe", "Oppenheimer", "Old Familiar Steam", and "Bel Air", among others. So I was hoping I'd get to see them play a few of these tracks and they didn't disappoint. And they always make sure they play 1 token song from their 1993 debut album, Hitchhike to Rhome. And they made an inspired choice with "Hands Off." On the record this song has a fiddle and an accordion, so it was interesting to see them pull it off live without the extra instruments.

It was interesting to see how they would be able to still play a lot of old favorites and mix in a healthy dose of the new album (they played 9 of the 13 tracks from the new one). And they succeeded by just playing more songs overall in order to fit them all in. The only old crowd favorites that were missing were "Victoria", "The Streets Of Where I'm From", and "King Of All The World." You can't really complain about that.

And it was a nice way to mix it up during the encore to have Rhett do "Singular Girl" solo acoustically....a song that has a full band on both the Old 97's bonus track from Satellite Rides and on Rhett's last solo album. But instead of doing "Question" solo acoustically like he usually does, the full band played on more of a rollicking back beat.

This was the 10th time now that I have seen either the Old 97's or Rhett Miller solo and this ranks as my favorite show of them all. It was a great setlist - 29 songs in about 2 hours. The Troc was packed....really packed and it goes without saying, hot and sweaty. And they had the left part of the bottom floor cordoned off for drinking. So it made the rest of the room a little too close for comfort. It appeared to be a sold-out show and seemed to be as crowded as any show I've ever seen there - including, off the top of my head - Rilo Kiley in 2007, Rancid in 2006, Face to Face in 2004, and Alkaline Trio in 2003.

Setlist (mostly right....although I think I may the order mixed up from around 13 to 18):

1. The Fool
2. Barrier Reef
3. Won't Be Home
4. No Baby I
5. Lonely Holiday
6. Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue
7. Buick City Complex
8. Nite Club
9. Two Feet
10. Early Morning
11. Alone So Far
12. Crash on the Barrelhead
13. Salome
14. Hands Off
15. I Will Remain
16. Rollerskate Skinny
17. Smokers
18. The One
19. Murder (Or A Heart Attack)
20. The Easy Way

21. Singular Girl (Rhett solo)
22. song with Rhett and opening act the Spring Standards
23. Valentine (Murry solo)
24. Question (full band returns)
25. Dance With Me
26. Big Brown Eyes
27. Doreen

28. The New Kid
29. Time Bomb


- Early on in the set, Rhett noted that the last time they had played the Trocadero they were opening for Wilco (in 1999).

- Before playing "Lonely Holiday," Rhett said, "Like every song by the band Journey, there is song about being on tour...."

- Before "Nite Club", Rhett said, "Club owners get nervous before we play this song, but luckily we're really nice guys." This was in reference to the chorus "I think I might get drunk tonight /And burn the nite club down."

- Before "Hands Off", Rhett said, This is an old song that some people might not know, but we still like playing it."

- Before "I Will Remain", Rhett announced that this song contained his first ever guitar solo. The crowd then cheered during his 10-second solo. And the end he joked, "Look out Eddie Van Halen!"

- During the encore guitarist Ken Bethea (who rarely speaks), said it was great to be playing in a place like the Troc. He remembered the first time they played Philly they played in a diner called "Silver City" (he meant Silk City). And then he said the next they played here it was at the Khyber opening up for a guy who just played a boom box and danced. And then Rhett chimed in that the Khyber is such a great punk rock venue and he noticed a band playing there this week called, You, Me, and T-Rex....and joked, "Well, I do like T-Rex."

- Rhett brought out the first opening act the Spring Standards during the encore for a song they had written, but left off their debut album. And then Rhett apparently re-worked the song with them during this tour. Rhett sang co-lead vocals.

- After the 2nd encore, they came back in about 30 seconds. And then they joked that this was planned. "That's what known in Texas as a fraudulent encore", noted Murry. They said because of curfew, they had to wrap up soon, so they rushed through the encore b.s. so they could play more songs.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Alkaline Trio 7/15/08 @ The TLA, Philadelphia, PA.

I figured this would be a good opportunity to give my mini-review of the new album, as well as a review of the live show.

Guitarist/vocalist Matt Skiba and the Alkaline Trio have now been around for over 11 years, since Skiba, original bassist Rob Doran, and original drummer Glenn Porter met as bike messengers in Chicago, while playing in other like-minded bands. Bassist/vocalist Dan Andriano replaced original bass player Rob Doran later in 1998 and ended his band, Tuesday, to join the early version of the Alkaline Trio shortly before the release of their debut album, Goddamnit. They all bonded over their love of alcohol and for bands such as Naked Raygun, the Ramones, Social Distortion, Jawbreaker, the Misfits, the Cure, and the Smiths. Original drummer Glenn Porter was replaced by Mike Felumlee in 2000 and he was replaced by current drummer Derek Grant in 2002.

They recently made their major label debut on Epic with the release of their 6th album, Agony & Irony, earlier this month. And it debuted at #13 (an appropriate number for this band) on the Billboard chart - the highest charting debut ever for the band. So a lot of people are probably thinking "Sell out!" But I don't feel they've sold out musically at all. (However, they did work with Nike to design the new Heart and Soul shoe with a black and red color scheme as a nod to their hometown Bulls and most of their album artwork....see a clip here....probably retailing for $120 at a mall near you).

This still isn't the kind of album that would appeal to the Fall Out Boy or All American Rejects crowd. The band's music previously centered around what they knew in the early days: recurring themes of good/evil, alcoholism, loneliness, and heartache. And while some of those things have changed for the better in their personal lives in recent years, they still find ways to express these themes in their writing. And they still write great pop/punk hooks and clever turns of phrase.

I think musically the band kind of peaked on Good Mourning in 2003. That was like the culmination of everything they do well and with a new drummer/multi-instrumentalist, they were able to really hone their sound and take it to another level. And the result was one of the best records of the decade. They'll probably never record an album that good ever again. And they definitely seemed to realize they had to try new things. None of the changes are going to be that drastic. They are still a pop/punk band and they aren't going to start playing Blues or something. But I think people who follow them closely have noticed the changes.

On a few songs on Crimson - "Burn" and "Sadie" - they gave a preview of what they were capable of doing. They were two great songs that were a bit different than anything they'd ever done before, with something that builds slowly with a different kind of pacing. The first time I heard "Sadie", I said to myself this is kind of their "U2 song" - with the breakdown and then the big dramatic chorus (all of the "whoa-oh-oh-oh" stuff) at the end and a guitar line that sounds like it could have been played by The Edge in recent years. And there is a string arrangement written by drummer by Derek Grant that kind of gets lost in there with everything else going on. Never mind the fact that the song is about Sadie Glutz of the Manson family.

Agony & Irony kind of picks up where Crimson left off, as far as the direction the band is heading. It's a fairly strong album from start to finish. There are always a few tracks you wouldn't mind seeing them replace with some of the b-sides and bonus tracks, but overall it's hard to complain. I still don't know how "Burned in the House" got left off and is included as bonus material, but a song like "Ruin It" (decent song, just not as good as "Burned in the House"), makes it on there. Kind of the same thing with Replacements fans scratching their heads about how "Nowhere Is My Home" and the Tim version of "Can't Hardly Wait" could have been left off of Tim, but "Dose of Thunder" and "Lay It Down Clown" made the cut.

I do like just about every track, even though 2 or 3 certainly seem to fall into the "filler" category. Few bands have "filler" as good as the Alkaline Trio. Here are some quick observations:

The production on certain songs feels to me like they purposely made the vocals a little scratchier or fuzzier than they probably were in reality. It's hard to tell since Matt's voice usually gets shot during the recordings and he needs to rest it frequently afterwards. I wonder if on "Calling All Skeletons" and one other song (I forget which one) if they used a later vocal mix where his voice was more strained. Or it even felt like they turned the sound down on the vocal tracks at times especially during the verses, which is an odd thing to hear on a major label debut, where the vocals are usually pristine. You can hear on the choruses the vocals sound strong, but the verses seem weaker.

The guitar during the chorus of "Live Young, Die Fast" sounds like something from latter day Husker Du with their wall of sound. Or to compare to a more contemporary artist, it has a little Braid/Hey Mercedes feel to it...who I always thought sounded like vintage poppier Bob Mould /Husker Du when they were at their best.

Dan once again contributed some stellar songs - "Love Love Kiss Kiss", "In Vein", and "Don't You Wanna Know" are some of the best stuff he has written. And they compare favorably to his standout tracks on Good Mourning and Crimson.

"Over and Out." This may be their first political song I can recall. It tells the story of a spouse who is killed during the war and about the last phone conversation they had before it happened. I also think it's one of the best songs on the record and musically it's a little different in the same way that "Sadie" and "Burn" were on the last album.

"Help Me." This is vintage Alkaline Trio. I think it's a great song and they could seemingly write 10 of these in their sleep on every album if they chose to do so. It was inspired by last year's big screen bio of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, who sadly committed suicide just as the group was beginning to breakthrough in the late 70's/early 80's.


1. Calling All Skeletons
2. Nose Over Tail
3. I Lied My Face Off
4. I Found Away
5. In Vein
6. Warbrain
7. Mercy Me
8. Blue Carolina
9. Armageddon
10. Old School Reasons
11. Private Eye
12. Don't You Wanna Know
13. Dead & Broken
14. Crawl
15. Goodbye Forever
16. Bleeder
17. Help Me
18. This Could Be Love

19. For Your Lungs Only
20. Radio

Breakdown by album:
Goddamnit - 1
Maybe I'll Catch Fire - 1
Alkaline Trio (rarities collection) - 4
From Here To Infirmary - 3
Good Mourning - 2
Crimson - 1
Remains (2nd rarities collection) - 3
Agony & Irony - 5

Great show and a great setlist. They played something from just about every release, including Split EPs. My only minor complaints are I'd have rather heard one of Matt's other songs from the new album, instead of "I Found Away." I thought I'd hear at least either "Over and Out", "Lost and Rendered", or "Live Young Die Fast" instead. And I think they should play "'97" at every show...I'm always a little disappointed when I don't hear that. And I'm surprised they didn't play a few more from Good Mourning. But those minor missteps were made up with "Bleeder", "Dead & Broken", and "For Your Lungs Only" - the first time I recall them ever getting played at any of the other half-dozen shows I've seen. They may have played "Bleeder" the first time I saw them play as a headliner (at the Chameleon in Lancaster), but I didn't know their older stuff that well back then. So I can't remember.

The sound quality was a little lacking again at the TLA, as it was a few weeks ago during the Black Crowes show. The upstairs area is just not great for sound quality. The Troc is kind of the same way. The vocals sounded muffled up there during this show. Next time I go to the TLA, I'm going out on the floor downstairs, come hell or high water. Drummer Derek Grant is really great. I think he really adds that extra oomph to a lot of the older songs, which he didn't play on originally. I think he has helped take their sound to a new level, in a similar way as what Dave Grohl did when he joined Nirvana.

It was a typical all-business show by the Alk3. 20 songs in an economical 80 or so minutes. No jamming and very little chit chat. Other than introducing a handful of songs, the only commentary I recall is Matt dedicating "Nose Over Tail" to Philadelphia for the amazing vegetarian cheese steak (he's a vegetarian) he had earlier today. And when introducing "Warbrain" he said it was released on the Rock Against Bush compilation in 2004. Then the crowd booed a little. And he paused and said, "Well, it's almost over....a few more months to go." Other highlights were the crowd singing along (both verses and choruses) for most of "Crawl", "Goodbye Forever", "Bleeder", and "Radio" much so that the band let the crowd just sing a good part of it. It looked like it even threw Matt off a little because he missed his timing on a few of the verses because the crowd was already singing it. A perfectly imperfect, but great rock 'n' roll moment.

After the Occult Roots Tour in '06, where they played Goddamnit it its entirety + another full hour set of songs, I thought they were going to start playing a different kind of show - maybe playing a lot longer with an acoustic set in the middle. But they are still selling out theatres all over the country, so there is no need to change things too much. For $20 fans are still getting their money's worth and then some.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Black Crowes - 07/03/08 @Theatre of Living Arts, Phladelphia, PA


1. Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution (new album)
2. Remedy
3. Jam -> Black Moon Creeping
4. Oh Josephine (new album)
5. Soul Singin'
6. Whoa Mule (new album)
7. You Don't Miss Your Water (unreleased bonus track from new album)
8. Rockin' Chair (The Band)
9. Poor Elijah /Tribute To Robert Johnson (Medley) (Eric Clapton)
10. God's Got It (new album)
11. Movin' On Down The Line (new album)
12. Wiser Time
13. Only A Fool
14. Hard To Handle (Otis Redding)
15. Wounded Bird (new album)
- encore -
16. Hung Upside Down (Buffalo Springfield)
17. Keep On A Knockin' (1st time played) (Little Richard)

As you can see from the setlist above, out of 17 songs 12 of them were either covers, rarities, or songs from the new album, Warpaint. Only 5 other songs + Hard To Handle (cover) were from the prime 1989-2001 years. The only real highlights in the set for me was the Jam into "Black Moon Creeping", a great version of "Soul Singing", and "Only A Fool" from the notoriously short-shrifted but great 1999 album By Your Side. They hadn't played this song in over 3 years and only a handful of times since their 1999 Souled Out tour wrapped up. And during "God's Got It", drummer Steve Gorman came out and played a big drum strapped to him and hanging in front - the kind marching bands use. And on it was a picture of George W. Bush with a black eye. They never really commented on it, but they didn't have to.

But those few high points weren't enough to make up for the rest of the 2-hour show. "Hard to Handle", the only song from their debut album to get played at any of the 3 Philly shows, is probably my least favorite of their well-known songs. One, it's a cover and two, it was just completely overplayed when it came out and didn't age well, in my opinion.

Tracks 6 thru 9 were performed acoustically with the band seated. This brought the encouraging early momentum of the show to a screeching halt. And it kind of never really got back on my track for me after that.

I respect a band who does what they want to do and just hopes the fans come along for the ride. That's what someone like Wilco has done for the better part of a decade. But their live shows are always full of enough songs to satisfy all of their fans.

And what a band like the Rolling Stones and U2 now do - playing the same 25 or 30 crowd-pleasing songs just about every show is kind of the opposite of what rock and roll is all about. But they have to do that to justify charging $100, I guess. There has to be a happy medium between what the Stones or U2 do and what the Black Crowes currently do. I'm not saying I want the same hit-laden 25-song, 2 hour set every night. But it'd be nice to know that a fan like myself, who owns every song they've ever recorded, would know more than 2/3 of their setlist at show. Every once in a while, it's nice to leave a show and wonder what that song was that one of your favorite bands just played. Then you go home and Google some of the lyrics and uncover a new obscure cover. But after this show I needed to do that for about 40% of the setlist..

A band like Pearl Jam has found that happy medium that has so far eluded the Black Crowes since around 1999. They play varied setlists, often reviving old songs, but still playing enough of the old favorites to try to make both casual fans and diehards happy. I always pick nits with them too (they play "Even Flow" too often, their encores almost always include "Yellow Ledbetter" and "Rockin' in the Free World", etc.), but generally there is always enough in the rest of the set to send me home happy. That's why they offer the best live music experience of any band of their generation. You'll get a 2:30+ set that is unique compared to other shows and most fans will know and love most of the songs played.

And it would be so easy for the Black Crowes to placate fans like me by maybe replacing one cover or rarity during the middle of the set and both songs in the encore with old crowd favorites. And then people like me would cut them more slack and perhaps go back to see them again in the future, knowing there'd be a few scraps tossed their way. People would leave on a high note. But this is the 3rd show in a row I was disappointed with setlist. The show at Penns Landing in July '06 and now the TLA show from last week were both very disappointing. And the one at the Tower Theatre in Sept '05 was only saved by the fact that the Tower was a such a great venue and they played for over 3 hours with an intermission, so they had ample time to fill in the set with a lot of the crowd favorites, mixed in with the usual high percentage of obscure covers and rarities.

My point is if you want to be self-indulgent and fuck around and play covers and unreleased songs, then go play a small venue and charge $12 or $15. Then fans will have lower expectations and people will feel like they have gotten their money's worth. For example most fans' memories of the Replacements' falling-down-drunk, cover-heavy sets from their early years have probably been over-romanticized over the last 2 decades. But if the band had more notoriety and could have commanded more money for a show back then, I'm not sure fans would remember these sets quite so fondly and cut them as much slack as they did.

If that is what the Black Crowes essentially have become, then stop playing up the past catalog when these shows are marketed to the public. The reason a band like the Black Crowes can play a venue like the TLA for 3 sold out shows and charge $50 a ticket (or larger venues for even more money per ticket if they chose to) is because of the fans they cultivated throughout the 1990's with a pretty impressive output of original songs. You can't have it both ways.

And anyway, Phish just announced they are reuniting, so all of the Deadheads who had no place to go for the better part of the last 12 years (and based on what I have experienced the last 7-8 years, were overpopulating Wilco and Black Crowes shows) will have somewhere else to go soon.