Old 97’s | Let the Idiot Speak

The ability to write and release great music is one of the mainstays of Old 97’s.

 

 

 

I first heard Old 97’s on April 26, 1999. I remember the date because it was the day before their fourth studio album, Fight Songs, was released. A co-worker at a now-defunct music store played the new album while we stocked the shelves with the next day’s new releases and by the time we were finished, I was hooked.  They came to town a month or so later, to The Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, but, being 17, I was not allowed by the venue to attend (not to mention my mother). As you are probably aware, if there’s anything that makes a teenage girl love something more, it’s forbidding her to have it. If there had been any question that I liked the band a lot before that, having to wait till October of that year to finally see them live certainly cemented my adoration. 

That was almost 13 years ago, and the lead song from Fight Songs, “Jagged,” still gives me chills. I quickly snapped up the band’s other releases, saw them live a lot, and they in turn ushered me through my 20s, however gracelessly I managed to do it. For someone who doesn’t drink or chase women, I somehow found myself identifying with their songs about being on the road, drinking way too much, and leaving a track of tangled sheets and broken hearts behind them. There is something unquestioningly identifiable about their music. They have at least two songs about killing cheating lovers but they’re sung with such vigor that you can’t help but sing along. The ability to write and release great music is one of the mainstays of Old 97’s, along with performing one of the most energetic concerts that most people have ever seen. 

This is not to say that things haven’t changed over time. I saw lead singer Rhett Miller solo in Chicago last October and I mentioned to him that, when I started listening, he was a wayward twentysomething. Nowadays, he is a fortysomething married father of two. I told him how happy I was for him that he was where he is now and he said, “Thank you,”and grinned in such a way that assured me he doesn’t miss the former debauchery too much. He was then, actually rushing to get to the hotel before a 5 a.m. flight the next day—he said he’d be with his kids by 1 p.m. It was touching and a reminder, if the music wasn’t enough, that Miller and the other members of the band—bassist and occasional lead singer Murry Hammond, lead guitar player Ken Bethea, and drummer extraordinaire Philip Peeples—are real people not caught up too much in the drama that can besiege bands. 

Things haven’t always been peaceful or quiet, of course. The band has changed labels several times, perhaps most dramatically when they were dropped by Elektra…who then picked up Miller as a solo artist (he has since left Elektra as well). All of the members are fathers now, and that changes things. Tours are shorter and they’re scheduled, as much as they can be, around things that are more important back home, like Bethea’s flag football coaching. With regard to home, they’re scattered geographically. When the band was first formed 19 years ago, they were all residing in Dallas but now Hammond lives in California with his wife and son and Miller lives outside New York City, bordering a horse farm. Miller has four solo albums and is working on the fifth. Hammond has released his first solo work, I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way, with proceeds going to benefit a charity he is involved with, Project Mercy. They help to build houses and provide the materials to build public latrines in Tijuana, Mexico. 

Through all of this they have continued what they do best –making great music. They’re currently on New West Records and it seems a good fit for them. The last two albums, Grand Theatre Volumes I and II, have been a mix of the grit that helped comprise the first two albums, Hitchhike to Rhome and Wreck Your Life, with some of the polish of the later releases, the aforementioned Fight Songs and the follow-up, Satellite Rides. Their shows are more polished now as well, and though I resented that at first, perhaps age has softened me a bit to the idea that things will change. The band still has something to say—I don’t think they’d keep going if they didn’t—and they’re still conveying it with the same heart that made a fan of a starstruck 17 year old. |  Teresa Montgomery

Old 97’s will be in town Tuesday, January 31, at The Pageant. Tickets are $20 in advance, $23 day of show, with Catilin Rose and The O’s supporting. Doors are at 7 with the show starting at 8.

 

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