Music note: Old 97’s run smooth at First Ave


”So,” my girlfriend asked as we stood on First Avenue’s upper level, watching the Old 97’s. “What do you think?”

I looked at frontman Rhett Miller wagging his legs, wobbling his hips, throwing his long hair to and fro, and windmill-strumming his guitar. “I think,” I replied, “that’s a man who enjoys his job.”

For more information on the Old 97’s: Hayes Carll: I Love Math: Upcoming shows at First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry:

The Old 97’s are generally regarded as an alt-country band, but now that Miller has shed his Texas twang and the group’s sound has veered towards power pop, the countryest thing about the Old 97’s might be their bar-band dedication to slamming through a live set with as few pauses or energy lapses as possible. At First Ave on Wednesday night there was no crowd-shushing for the quieter numbers (a la Kate Nash), no calling out unenthused patrons (a la M.I.A.), and no instrument-swapping (a la Rilo Kiley). You got the sense that they were almost hoping for a good old chair-bashing bar fight…but Old 97’s fans are lovers, not fighters.

It’s hard to imagine that Miller, reigning heartthrob of the No Depression set, gets jilted very often, so you have to appreciate his resourcefulness in parlaying what woe he’s experienced into a rich 15-year songbook of suffering. Though he’s penned songs of romantic triumph—and even a pedestrian political number, which he played on Wednesday—his signature lyric remains the concluding line of “Rollerskate Skinny,” which the crowd shouted along with. “I believe in love,” laments Miller, “but it don’t believe in me.”

You got the sense that they were almost hoping for a good old chair-bashing bar fight…but Old 97’s fans are lovers, not fighters.

The band played a few songs from their crackling new album Blame It On Gravity, but also drew heavily on their previous release Drag It Up, an album of fine songs sabotaged by poor production. Having never seen the band live before, I was pleasantly surprised by how much stage presence each of the band’s three front-line members evidenced. Lead guitarist Ken Bethea tends to look a little doofy in band photos, but onstage, he brandished confident charisma and forearms as muscular as his licks. Bassist Murray Hammond, cradling his instrument like Johnny Cash and leaning into the microphone like Hank Williams, is emerging as the group’s George Harrison—a songwriter whose few contributions are so strong that you have to believe he has an All Things Must Pass in him. (In fact, maybe he released it last month: I haven’t yet heard his solo debut I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way.) Hammond’s relatively thin voice doesn’t have the same expressive range as Miller’s, but as Hammond approaches middle age he’s growing into his voice—whereas Miller occasionally veers dangerously close to Elvis-Costello-like infatuation with his.

Opening for the Old 97’s were the laconic Hayes Carll, purveyor of high-volume honky-tonk; and the winningly tuneful I Love Math, featuring Old 97’s drummer Philip Peeples.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Jay Gabler’s summer music preview.