1) The Old 97’s would be a much more depressing band if Rhett Miller weren’t around. The structure of “An Evening With the Old 97’s,” as the show was billed, gave a unique insight into what half of the 97’s bring to the table: With no opening acts, first was a solo set by bassist Murry Hammond, who trudged through a dozen dirges that were about as cheery as a plane crash. “I’m all about the funerals,” he noted before one particularly depressing Carter Family cover. Next was a set of poppy love songs by lead singer Rhett Miller. While it’s a little tougher to know exactly what guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples are packing, the final set by the full band seems to prove that Miller is the only one who really enjoys writing upbeat songs that hinge on their own cleverness.
2) Just because the fans have aged a little, they haven’t gotten less enthusiastic. There’s a girl my friends and I call Yes-No-Yes-No Girl, who is always front-and-center whenever the 97’s come to town. So named for the distinctive way she nods and shakes her head to the beat—up, down, left, right, up, down, left, right—this girl was curiously absent last night. We were worried at first, but she seems to be replaced by slightly older, much jumpier versions of the same. I spent much of the show concerned that two particular fans up front were going to take out anyone within a six-foot radius.
3) This is a much, much better way to promote solo albums for Rhett Miller, whose new one came out two weeks ago. Rhett Miller fans exist because of the Old 97’s, a fact he explicitly acknowledged when announcing for the first time that he’s returning to town in September with his solo band, Rhett Miller and the Serial Lady Killers. It’s the same group of musicians that toured behind his last solo disc The Believer, but renamed in a nod to the 97’s most famous song.
4) Calling Rhett Miller a mop-top is not a metaphor. The man’s floppy locks retain water like a ShamWow, spraying the front rows only when he shakes his head violently later in the set.
4a) Dude looks like he’s been working out. Getting in shape, or attempt to make up for flagging solo CD sales? Whatever it is, it’s working.
5) 1 + 1 + 2 = 97. It’s a cliché to say a band is more than the sum of its parts, but 97 is a prime number, so it’s gotta be addition at work here. In his opening set, Hammond was devoted to his craft, but not much of a performer: lyrics were mumbled and abstruse, and that many country-death songs could make a man kill himself on a Sunday night (which, granted, is kind of the point with good country music). Miller’s set, by contrast, was rays of upbeat sunshine, but not a lotta heft. Add in the rest of the band, though—propelled by the pure kinetic energy of Peeples’ wild-man drumming and Bethea’s dirty-Texas guitar licks (which have never sounded better, by the way), and it’s enough to make any music fan love math. — JEFF BARG
(set list after the jump)
OLD 97’S SET LIST
Won’t Be Home
Here’s to the Halcyon [“The happiest song about a shipwreck you’ve ever heard.” —Rhett Miller]
Crash on the Barrelhead [Played for the second time tonight; Hammond also did it solo. Why?]
What We Talk About
No Baby I
The Easy Way
Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue
Question [With a tacked-on last verse in French. Because the song’s not drippingly romantic enough already.]
Designs on You
I Will Remain
Big Brown Eyes
I Need to Know Where I Stand [Played for the second time tonight; Miller also did it solo. Why? Oh, because he’s selling a solo record.]
Dance With Me