Life on the road as a touring rock band can be hard. Between the late nights, heavy drinking, living on a bus, and generally treating your body like a dumpster, it’ll age you quicker than you want if you’re not careful.
But not Rhett Miller. He knows the proper balance by heart. Though he’s fronted Old 97’s for almost 20 years and eight studio albums, he still looks like that baby-faced kid who was too young to appear on Dallas stages back in 1993 with tales of whiskey and the West.
"This place is like a time machine," said the sentimental, old 97’s frontman to the sold out Friday night crowd. "You all went to college and got jobs – we came to the Bottleneck."
Despite the old school vibe Miller was feeling, the night would be dominated by tracks off the newest album, "The Grand Theatre, Volume One."
Old 97’s set started off with the first track off their latest release, and by night’s end they had played almost every song off the new album. Sprinkled in, of course, were old favorites like Barrier Reef, Four Leaf Clover, Question, and Time Bomb, which was the finale. As is usually the case, the crowd wanted more of the oldies (myslef included). Particularly, I was hoping for more material off of 2001’s "Satellite Rides," an album that was critically panned, but that holds up nobly in live performances.
Old 97’s do some things really well, and some things just so-so. The biggest knocks on the band are probably the fact that Rhett Miller’s vocals live can be all over the map, at times making harmonies a bit tricky. And some have labeled their music as derivative and lacking in depth.
While I can understand some critics’ issues with Miller’s vocals (indeed, they were a bit shaky to begin with on Friday, but grew in strength as the set progressed), I would have to disagree about the songwriting.
Let me explain.
The Old 97’s are underrated musicians, perhaps because what you really notice about them are the songs. Instead of remembering that ripping guitar line, or truly virtuoso musicianship, the star is the song. Maybe it’s because when Rhett Miller sings, even if it is a bit off-key, the sincerity is unmistakable. Maybe it’s because Miller sweats through his jeans as he feeds the crowd song after song, never seeming to tire.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’re a great singer, as long as the audience believes that you really mean what you’re saying, that you have an actual stake in the story. And Miller really does.
On the best song of the night, the new Dylan-esque, "Champaign, Illinois," Miller spoke of successes, of struggles, and all the stops we make in between:
The bottom line’s been snorted
The bottom card’s been dealt
No one knows like you know right now
How truly bad it felt
Oh, then if you die fearin’ God
And painfully employed
No, you will not go to Heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois
Another highlight was the first song of the encore, Miller’s biggest hit from his solo efforts, "Come Around." He performed it solo, before his bandmates came back out, and had the already satisfied crowd eating out of the palm of his sweaty hand.
Next time Old 97’s come around, I bet they sell out again, and I bet some of the "new" songs turn into fan favorites. That’s just what they do.
1.The Grand Theatre
2.Here’s to the Halcyon
3.The Dance Class
4.Dressing Room Walls
5.You Smoke Too Much
7.The New Kid
9.W. TX Teardrops
10.A State of Texas
13.You Were Born To Be in a Battle
15.Let The Whiskey Take The Reins
16.Murder (Or a Heart Attack)
17.Mama Tried (Merle Haggard cover)
18.Big Brown Eyes
19.Please Hold on While the Train Is Moving
20.Four Leaf Clover
21.Come Around (Rhett Miller solo)
22.Valentine (Murray Hammond solo)
23.The Other Shoe
24.Won’t Be Home
25.Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)