Here’s one fact we can agree on: Old 97’s leader Rhett Miller is a young looking 38 years-old. Full of rock star bravado wrapped in an alt-country package, Miller played the arm-swinging, hair-thrashing, jump-off-the drum riser role with aplomb on Thursday night at the Vogue.
The band, formed in Dallas in 1993 (Miller is an Austin native) powered through 90 minutes of music, mixing a healthy portion of older tunes with many from their 2008 release “Blame It On Gravity” and also from Miller’s self-titled solo album that he put out this year.
In concert, they didn’t let their beyond-uptempo songs from the 1990’s go unplayed, and it helped elevate the energy level of the audience. Yet some of their most hearfelt and effective songs come from the recent band catalog.
Following 30-minute solo sets from both Miller and bassist Murry Hammond, the band hustled on stage and cranked up “Won’t Be Home” from 2004’s “Drag it Up” album. Flashing Telecaster guitars, Miller and guitarist Ken Bethea set the tone for a rock and roll kind of night, with Bethea’s buzzsaw playing turned up in the sound mix. Miller sported a Fogerty-esque red shirt, halfway unbuttoned, and was a natural draw for the audience eye.
Early in the show, they hopped between 1997’s “Too Far to Care” record and recent “Blame It On Gravity”. “Niteclub” reminded more of Social Distortion than anything country. The early sound, and this album in particular, would be constant throughout the show.
They then jumped ahead to 2008’s “Dance With Me” that was messy like a not-too-drunk Replacements performance, and bordered on frantic.
“W. TX Teardrops” led to a smoldering “No Baby I” and “This Beautiful Thing”, the latter two from the new record, with the wall of guitar sound and pop sensibilities replacing the thrash-and-bash of the punkier old material. For the new stuff, they ripped a sound from the Jeff-Lynne influenced Petty years that outdoes Tom.
But it was “Roller Skate Skinny” that showed to be a long-lost pop song for the group. The track, from 2001’s “Satellite Rides”, is kissed by great chord changes that can be as rough, or as pop-influenced as the guys want to play it. Thursday at the Vogue, they straddled the line perfectly, and made it one of the best performances of the night.
It also explains why they haven’t become more popular and continue to fall into the category of critic favorite. They are punk. They are obviously familiar with Texas Country. They are a garage rock band, and have some brilliant 60s pop echoes. They are also an unquestioned early influence in the alt-country genre, along with Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, and Drive-By-Truckers. I even hear some Jason and the Scorchers sounds in them, especially when Miller yelps and yells and screams.
That’s a lot of ingredients for a music mix. Though they are shiny enough to get songs on TV shows, they are, especially live, a rough-and tumble rock band, descended more from the Replacements and similar-sounding groups than from anything else. The rocking “Four Leaf Clover”, again going back to the “Too Far To Care” album, was a perfect example, as it thrashed to a conclusion.
Another mid-show highlight was a band version of Miller’s solo “I Need to Know Where I Stand”, and again it fell into Petty territory (and I’m not complaining). “Barrier Reef” had Miller swinging his hips to the rhythm of the band, with his back to the crowd. “Smokers” from “Drag it Up” (the song that contains the phrase that named the album) somehow grabbed and hung onto an Eric Burdon and the Animals vibe. Who could have known, right? Subtle and terrific, and even if the band didn’t try to do it, I heard it.
“Big Brown Eyes” was a crowd pleaser, while an effective five-song encore kicked off with “Bloomington” (a song that Miller intonated was about Indiana), followed by the nugget “Doreen” (from 1995’s “Wreck Your Life”), and a cover of R.E.M.’s “Driver 8” that Miller said would be on an upcoming covers EP.
“King Of All Of The World”, in all it’s glossy glory, and “Time Bomb” closed the show, with the crowd happy, jumping up and down, and the band standing on the front of the stage coaxing more from the Vogue audience.
There were times the band could have done more of this, letting themselves really go, instead of the control they tended to show, even when crashing through some of their speedier songs. Still, it was a good show from a band that has hung together far longer than most bands of their generation. It’s tough to find too many faults with the good performance. The three-quarter full Vogue crowd left with a keen retrospective of the band’s music, Rhett Miller’s red shirt ended the night nearly completely covered with sweat, and, for better or worse, the Old 97’s proved that they aren’t an easily pigeonholed one-trick rock and roll band.