January 22, 2011
So maybe it wasn't exactly the 2011 equivalent of a frenzied pack of Hell's Angels playing whack-a-mole on a dreamy assemblage of patchoulied pacifists. But the scuffle that broke out about a third of the way into the Old 97's
set Saturday -- blocked from our vision, but messy enough to catch the band's attention -- did add to the hellish, itchy dark of a steamy, sold-out Fillmore, in which every corner and nook was filled by a loyal member of the White Dude Army, sometimes with female, always with drink, often with attitude.
The show also reminded us of Times That Have Come and Gone in a way similar to that of Altamont, the tragic hippie beatdown that officially ended the 1960s. Not that we're signing off on any great Age of Aquarius here in 2011, exactly. But But Rhett Miller's '90s alt-country gunslingers are no young pups anymore, and on Saturday, the Old 97's came landed on the unflattering side of venerable. With bad (or bored) vibes floating through the antsy crowd, and a trail of messiness onstage, Old 97's didn't make a great case for their own vivacious longevity.
Certainly, Old 97's shuffle-punk isn't a sound for those who want to hear the cutting edge of music -- in fact, the opposite; it's like sharing a 30-year-old bottle with a few friends. Miller, chief heartthrob and hit-chorus architect, is 40 years old. His stalwart bassist and co-outlaw Murry Hammond sported a sliver flush at the temples Saturday, and no one else -- either in the band or in the crowd -- looked like getting carded at the bar was a new thing for them.
Unfortunately, the band members' performace belied, if not their age, then presumably the wear and tear they've racked up from years of playing. The biggest bummer of the night was that the band's main weapon -- Miller's beautifully rough voice -- burned out early in the set. Instead of hitting his high chorus notes, Miller scraped them.
As expected, there were plenty of songs from the band's latest album, The Grand Theatre. It's a familiar-sounding batch of songs that's been hailed as a return-to-form for Old 97's, which spent much of the last decade foundering as its frontman engaged himself in other (mostly solo) projects. Miller humbly introduced "Champaign, Ilinois," a song that rewrites Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" (melodies, refrains, and all), imagining the midwestern town as the catch-all bin for barren goody-two-shoesers in the afterlife.The band made the song sound like their own, with all the quintessentially incessant warm guitar leads (the only guitars we could hear Saturday) and Miller's longing, wispy-cowboy vocal style.
But other selections from the latest album came across like just another midtempo plod through three chords and an aching heart, especially on songs with bassist Hammond singing like "You Smoke Too Much."
It took the band a while to get there, but when "Barrier Reef" came, it set the crowd off like a bomb. Old 97's ended up playing much of Too Far To Care, their fan-favorite 1997 album. Sadly, the band's spirited-but-rough playing style -- Miller broke no fewer than three guitar strings over the course of the night -- bulldozed through the songs instead of exploring them.
Nowhere was this tendency worse than after Miller returned from the encore to sing a few of his solo tunes. He seemed to race through "Our Love" as quickly as possible, slamming a silvery clatter out of his muddy-sounding acoustic guitar.
The crowd had thinned severely by the time the band turned out "Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)" and closed with "Timebomb," a song which, unlike many others, sent up big shouts from the audience. Maybe it was the packed venue or the gruff vibes that caused more people to leave than usual. Or maybe, like us, they sensed that things with Old 97's on Saturday weren't what they used to be.
Yowza: When the Fillmore is crowded, it's really crowded.
Call the 'Waaa'mbulance': I missed hearing all the poppy heartbreak songs off of Satellite Rides.