The Old 97′s were one of the first bands I ever saw live, years ago at the now defunct Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas, Texas, a city that isn’t exactly known for churning out good music for how big it is. Both the Old 97′s and myself hail from the Big D, however, and I’ve always been proud to bring this up whenever their name is mentioned. Of course, no one ever seems to care, and you surely don’t either, but when I saw that they were coming to play the Showbox on Wednesday, I was more than excited to renew my appreciation of my musical hometown heroes. I was just as interested to see if they still packed the same punch that hit me when they first introduced me to what live music should be. Years had gone by since then, the band had aged, the members had moved to different cities, frontman Rhett Miller and original cohort and bassist Murry Hammond had ventured off to work on solo material, and it was hard for me to believe they had been around for 16 years and that the boyish heartthrob Miller was now 39 years old. Though I wasn’t sure what to expect, one thing I wasn’t worried about was enjoying myself -- I trust Rhett Miller to put on a great live show like I trust my mother to love me.
The David Wax Museum were the opening act, and the only thing I knew about them was that they featured a donkey’s jawbone, which was interesting enough for me to make sure I didn’t miss their set. When I arrived, vested front man David Wax (real name) was on stage, flanked on either side by Mike Roberts, playing electric guitar, and Suz Slezak, playing the fiddle and singing lovely backup vocals. The trio mostly played rather conventional slow-paced country ballads, which sounded good, but I had me a fever and the only prescription was jawbone. After a while they switched up instruments, with Roberts bringing out an stand-up bass, Wax changing to ukulele, and Slezak brandishing an enormous jawbone that she appeared to be playing with some other type of bone. That’s what I’m talking about! The songs they played with this new arrangement were far more upbeat, catchy, and unique than their others, with one or two sounding crazily like a Mexican, folkified version of Vampire Weekend. They eventually switched back to the traditional arrangement, and a gracious David Wax took the time to let everyone know that it was their first time in Seattle, that we could sign up for their newsletter, and that they’d be hanging out after the show to chat and sell merch. They finished their set, and the crowd turned their heads here and there and mingled around in anticipation of the Old 97′s. After a few minutes, I saw out of the corner of my eye a guy holding two clipboards, talking to a couple. At first I thought one of the guys trying to get liquor privatized had snuck into the Showbox somehow, but upon closer inspection I noticed he was wearing a gray vest and realized it was David Wax signing people up for the band’s mailing list.
The Old 97′s came out right on time and immediately started into “The Fool,” the first song off of their most recent release, 2008′s Blame It on Gravity. All four irreplaceable members of the band looked and sounded just as I had imagined them, with the exception of a few gray hairs beginning to show themselves on everyone except Miller, who legitimately could have passed for a 20-year-old. On stage, he acted like a kid in a candy store, bouncing around and rhythmically shifting his weight from hip to hip along with the band. He frequently broke out his trademark modified Pete Townsend-style windmill strum, in which his forearm casually spins around his elbow like a top. Away from the mic, he’d sing along to Hammond’s vocal parts, he’d point and signal around, smile out of exhaustion toward the end of the set, and briefly gaze deeply into the audience, seemingly still in awe that he is lucky enough to play his music in front of a crowd even after 16 years.
The Old 97′s really are the pioneers of contemporary alternative country. Their lyrics are country lyrics, dealing with heartbreak, drunkenness, and tearing it up, while unfurling in a tangible, descriptive manner that isn’t at all vague or hard to pin down. They’re not trying to be esoteric or lofty; theirs are real lyrics that real people can relate to, and they kick the ass of pretty much everything else out there. They also all came out in western shirts, they’re all from Texas, and Murry Hammond’s jovial Southern drawl deserves to be enshrined in some sort of museum of accents. For all that makes them country, the Old 97′s are also a four-piece rock band, with furious drum playing, shredding guitar, and a dynamic front man whose songwriting and persona transcend genre. As was often the case, a song would reach its apex and Miller would belt out a “2, 3, 4!” or “Yeah!” before abruptly turning away from the mic and engaging the rest of the band - while Miller and Hammond are the front men and founders, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples have just as much to do with the Old 97′s unique brand of countrified rock -- in a riotous jam that never failed to bring the crowd into a frenzy.
As the show progressed, the band’s energy only intensified, bringing the audience right along with it. They played mostly older live classics like “King of All of the World,” “West Tx. Teardrops,” “Barrier Reef,” “Stoned,” and my personal favorite “4 Leaf Clover.” They mixed in songs off Blame It on Gravity as well such as “No Baby I” from which the album get its title as Miller sings “Blame it on gravity, yeah / Blame it on being a girl,” and the long, slow, and mournful “Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue,” which might be the best song on the album. After playing David Bowie’s “Five Years,” they ended the set with the rollicking favorite “Doreen” before exiting the stage to wild applause.
Miller quickly came back out and played a few acoustic songs by himself, including an ode to Texas, before the band rejoined him to finish out the night. After a song or two more, Miller climbed up to the front of the drum set and stood with his back facing the audience, signaling that this would be last song. Like always, Miller would jump off backward and do a 180 degree turn as the band burst into “Time Bomb” to close out the night. The song ended and the band waved in appreciation. A smiling and spent Miller gave a few bows before running off the stage.
When a concert is coming to an end, even if it’s a good show, I’m usually not terribly disappointed. I didn’t want the Old 97′s to stop playing on Wednesday night though. I don’t know if it was because I wanted the buzzing nostalgia I was feeling all night to last just a little bit longer, or if was because the Old 97′s are such a great band and are just plain pleasing to watch play. It could also very easily have been the fact that I had been leaning on the wall in front of the sound guy all night and my back wasn’t killing me like it is by the end of most shows. I’m pretty sure the music had something to do with it though, and I left the venue that night thanking the stars that the Old 97′s are still around and kicking.