Saturday, August 25, 2012
Long-time Old 97’s fan loved 15th anniversary show; newcomer didn’t
So maybe the Old 97's aren't for everyone.
Editor's note: This is a two-part story from the Old 97's 15th anniversary show Friday night at House of Blues. The first is from Mike Orren, a longtime superfan and Pegasus News founder. The second is from Crystal Decker, a first-time 97's concertgoer who would have rather been doing something else.
The good news, by Mike Orren:
For me, the Old 97’s are more than a band. They are my twenties. They are nights of drunken singalongs and smug smiles between friends who knew they were listening to the best damn band most folks had never heard. They may have even been my first social network, as I and other die-hards gathered every day on a 97’s fan listserv called “Wrecked” back when Mark Zuckerberg was still a tween. Some of us even splintered into another listserv called “Hitchhiking” when Wrecked got too frivolously off-topic for our tastes.
So of course, I wasn’t going to miss Friday night’s commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of Too Far to Care, a tour whose second stop brought it before a hometown crowd at the House of Blues in Dallas.
Many argue that TFTC is the 97’s best album. I’m not in that camp, but it’s still my sentimental favorite. It was the band’s major-label debut, after two superlative albums of what came to be called alt-country. TFTC toned down the twang, turned up the amps, and let loose the poet in frontman Rhett Miller. It was the album that was supposed to rocket the band to stardom, and you can hear some of that expectation in the songs.
Twenty-five year-old me and my friends felt the same way. We were no longer the new kids, but we weren’t yet pudgy suburb-bound minivan drivers. We were full of promise. For some reason we liked to go drown that in bottles of booze while shouting along to cynically hopeful lyrics about cop-fearing ne’er do wells who contemplated burning down nightclubs and who cared more about love than money.
Having been to probably 70 or more Old 97’s gigs, my biggest question walking in last night was how the band would end the show, given that the format of playing TFTC in full, followed by a second set of assorted favorites, required that de rigueur show-closer “Timebomb” lead the set. As an opener, it felt less raucous and urgent.
As the band moved at a crisp clip through TFTC’s 13 tracks, it reinforced for me how well the album hangs together as a whole, more than just an assortment of songs. It’s not like it’s a concept album, but it the songs are of a theme – coming of age with longing, being bad but coming into one’s own and maybe just self-destructing along the way.
There was little banter during the album portion of the show, save for the obligatory “Here’s a song about West Texas” from Murry Hammond before he took the lead on “West Texas Teardrops.”
Having played these songs endlessly for 15 years, the band was tight. They’re more polished and a hair less rough and rowdy than they were in the day, but certainly not lazy. Lead guitarist Ken Bethea was throwing in unusual riffs to replicate sound effects from the studio version of “Barrier Reef,” and drummer Philip Peeples always seems to find new fills in the bridges of old songs. I’d forgotten how much I love a couple of those tunes, particularly “Streets of Where I’m From.”
After completing the album portion, the band played another lengthy set spanning its whole career, including its most recent duo of Grand Theatre albums. That set seemed a bit looser and more rollicking, with the band clearly having a good time.
It feels cliché to point out, but the House of Blues crowd was terrible. Packed in like drunken sardines, easily half spent most of the show trying to talk over the band. Even on the loud songs. Nobody expects silence at an Old 97’s show, and loud singalongs are part of the fun. But I can’t fathom why someone pays LiveNation prices for a ticket and then doesn’t watch the show.
The show opened with a really short set from Miller playing solo acoustic selections to a half-full room. It ended appropriately with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Wreck of The Old 97.” Up next was Those Darlins, a twangy, punky female-fronted act who fit the central casting prototype of bands who open for the Old 97’s. I liked what I heard of them, but did miss a goodly chunk of their set buying merch and chatting with old members of the old Hitchhiking listserv, which dwindled over the years to the point that there hasn’t been a post since 2010. As I pontificated to my girlfriend about the logo on the shirt I was buying being the original, circa 1995, I heard the fellow behind me saying exactly the same thing to his wife. It was a little eerie.
While it didn’t make for the very best of the many 97’s shows I’ve seen, that’s a high bar. It was an interesting timewarp to hear all the TFTC songs played together and created a reunion vibe. Nice as that was, it whetted my appetite for more new songs that are of the age that the 97’s and I live in today.
And they still ended the show with “Timebomb,” playing it a second time to wrap the night.
The bad news, by Crystal Decker:
I am a villain. I'm a spy in the House of Love. I see hundreds of people fist-pounding, dancing, jumping in the air, drinking the Kool-Aid.
I'm thirsty. I want very, very much to taste this Kool-Aid. All I've heard for nearly a year is that this is the tastiest Kool-Aid ever.
It eludes me fully, and I am sweating. Oh crap. I'm gonna be that girl.
Love means never having to say, I don't like your favorite band. But there it is.
I don't dig the Old 97’s.
First, the tips of the hat: God bless the local bands. May forever they play. Especially when they have solidly interesting songwriting, strong vocals, and skilled musicians who love their work. Their cred is solid and clearly earned over time.
And I'm clearly the target demographic. I'm nearly 40, and the crowd circles that pool, with some fluctuations up and down. And this crowd? They know every lyric from the Too Far To Care album, which the band performed beginning-to-end in honor of its 15th anniversary. I know this, because they shouted every line, drinks in the air, exultant. Many a "woo" was heard this night, as the very best of shows will give you.
And now the knocks. Maybe HOB is the wrong venue for this worship. I listen to the Old 97's and I wish for the tiny, smoke-filled venues these songs likely were born into. If I had to guess, those corners were the original temples of truth these songs of drunken melancholy -- belted in full-throated Texana yodel -- first found their home.
You know who's great at that, I think? Tom Waits. I wonder when he's coming back to Dallas.
Second: the crowd. For all the earnest, intense-eyed sing-along, these concertgoers were looking at each other. And talking. Loudly. Many a reminiscence was happening at this show. They were remembering their first experiences with the Old 97's, in those tiny Texas bars, heartbroken and drunk and looking for poetry. HOB was their time machine, and yet, they were only paying half attention -- when not shouting lyrics at each other.
Dark Oz is playing at the Texas Theater at the same time, I remember. If I wanted to reminisce over a place I'd never been, maybe listening to Dark of The Moon while watching The Wizard Of Oz might have been the better bet. I'm just not feeling this vibe.
And then I look at my date. Drunk, starry-eyed, singing, pointing out meaningful lyrics, straining to see the stage from a shoulder-to-hip crush of people paying less attention than he is. Seeing him caught in this rapture of the past, I figure that must be the key I'm missing. Perhaps you needed to hear these lyrics then, when you were 25 and drunk and devastated. Maybe the early innoculation was required to fully take hold, and then transport you back to that place each time, once you've matured and moved on and can look back at those times of sentimental caterwauling and think damn, they hurt, but those were good times after all.
I'm not done with you, Old 97's. You're my boyfriend's favorite band, and I like four of your songs. I counted. I'll try you again, maybe with more gin down my gullet, and look for that Kool-Aid.
And then they break into a fist-pumping anthem which extolls the virtues of Texas, which has been used as an official song by the state's tourism board.
And I think, well, fuck. Maybe I just hate country.
Crystal Decker is a former film reviewer and critic from Dallas who plans to see B.B. King, Tedeschi Trucks, and Bob Schneider this coming week. She plans to have a lovely time at those shows.
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