Old 97’s | 2.18.11

The messiness of their earlier shows has been replaced by a polish that no doubt comes from years in the industry; they have survived, but there’s something lost in the process of cleaning up.

The Pageant, St. Louis
Friday night Old 97’s took the stage at the Pageant. They’ve played the venue a few times recently, but these guys have been coming to St. Louis for well over a decade, also playing Cicero’s, The Duck Room and Mississippi Nights (R.I.P.). They never fail to put on an energetic show, one where everyone in the audience enjoys themselves as much as the four men on stage do. Knowing this, I was quite excited to be seeing them.
The openers, Whiskey Folk Ramblers and Those Darlins, fit in well with the Old 97’s sound. Whiskey Folk Ramblers describe themselves as “folk noir” on their Facebook page, and it sums them up quite well. They were energetic and talented, and their set was all too short at seven songs.
Those Darlins were also enjoyable; the problem was that their songs all started to blur together. When I leave the floor for a few minutes and come back, I should be able to tell if the band is playing the same song. They were fun to watch—the music was far from dreary and they seemed to be good musicians—but they could have played the same song twice in their 14-song set and, were it not for the lead vocals being sung by different people, I’m not sure the crowd would have noticed.
Then, of course, it was time for Old 97’s. It’s only fair to tell you that I’ve been an Old 97’s fan since my senior year of high school. In the 12 years since then, I’ve probably seen them live a dozen times. The guys have released a total of nine studio albums, plus live albums, EPs and singles. I was expecting a show that spanned their career, with a few of the regular crowd-favorites thrown in. That wasn’t quite what I got. The first five songs were from the two most recent albums. These songs are well written and solid—the songwriting team of lead singer Rhett Miller and bass player Murry Hammond is as strong as ever. But it felt a bit like coming home after a long time away. You expect to find the place you grew up in just as you left it, but your parents changed the carpet in the front hall and repainted the living room.
The new songs are recognizable as Old 97’s material, but they are pop songs, much more so than anything the band has released before. They lack the twang of the earlier music. This is not a new development; I had resigned myself after the band’s seventh album, Drag It Up, to the idea that we were never going to get another studio album with the grit of their first two, Hitchhike to Rhome and Wreck Your Life. That being said, I thought the live shows would always be as raucous and noisy as they were when Old 97’s were selling out Mississippi Nights, and it would get too hot from everyone jumping around and Rhett would break guitar strings. Maybe the guitars are better tuned now, but no strings were broken on Friday night.
The intensity wasn’t present in the crowd or the band. The messiness of their earlier shows has been replaced by a polish that no doubt comes from years in the industry; they have survived, but there’s something lost in the process of cleaning up. The show, not including the encore, was 21 songs long. 12 of those were from the two most recent albums. While this made me appreciate the few older gems we got, such as “Stoned,” “Big Brown Eyes,” and “Doreen,” I wish the set list had been more varied. As the set progressed the guys loosened up on stage, and there was more of the stage antics and banter I’d come to expect. This was made complete with Miller referring to drummer Philip Peeples as their “secret weapon,” which is undeniably true to anyone who has seen him play.
All of the band members, Miller, Hammond, Peeples and lead guitarist Ken Bethea, are better musicians now than they were when they first started—though they were hardly lacking before. The heart is still there, too, which was evidenced in the encore. Miller played “Singular Girl” solo, though that has also been recorded as an Old 97’s song. Hammond then joined him onstage for a beautiful rendition of “Valentine.” Bethea and Peeples joined back in for “Jagged,” and then the rowdy, energetic “Timebomb” (the song I was not prepared to leave without hearing.) Overall, it was a great show, if not the one I was expecting. | Teresa Montgomery

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