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.

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