Some British band - it may have been the Thompson Twins - once sang about what a drag it is getting old. Aftermath is getting on in years, but still young at heart, which is what compelled us to go check out a similarly more seasoned Old 97s at the House of Blues Saturday night. 97's shows used to be plentiful, back when Elektra was banking on them to usher in a wave of alt-country profits. Aftermath fondly remembers packed shows at the Satellite Lounge - including a December 1998 barnburner with the Gourds - and a memorable gig at Fitzgerald's in August 1999. That was right after the release of Fight Songs, when stardom seemed inevitable, though it was mostly memorable for being 120 degrees upstairs, melting the makeup off all of front man Rhett Miller's new groupies. That was before the dark times, before Sugar Ray and Ricky Martin took over the radio and pushed the 97's and others back onto the porch. They made a try for mainstream radio, taking a turn into pop territory before going on hiatus while Miller pursued a solo career.
To say Saturday's gig was in support of their latest release (Blame It on Gravity) is a bit of a stretch. The album came out two years ago, but the band hasn't been back to Houston in a while, so we were looking forward to reconnecting with one of our old favorites, even if it wasn't at the dear departed Satellite.
The audience was largely the same as the last times Aftermath has seen them; the wannabe cowboys, the long and not-so long in the tooth ladies there to see Miller, the frat boys bellowing for "Up the Devil's Pay." And for the most part, the band came to play, opening with "The Fool" (the first track from Gravity), crowd favorite "Niteclub," "King of All the World" and "Lonely Holiday." That's four songs from four separate albums, which augured well for the rest of the set.
We say "for the most part" because one band member took a while to get into it, and that was Miller himself. He appeared bored during the first half of the show, dutifully shaking his ass in front of the drum riser while guitarist Ken Bethea soloed, and really only warming up as the show progressed.
Worse, the HoB's notorious sound system threw fits for a good chunk of the first half. Miller's vocals would cut out, and Bethea became visibly annoyed on several occasions at the levels on his guitar. Bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond was also frequently out of tune on his songs, most notably "Crash on the Barrel Head." Throw all that in with a crowd that - front ranks aside - mostly sat on their hands, and you had the makings for a real drag of a show.
There were early high points, however: the aforementioned "Niteclub," "Curtain Calls" (both from the superlative Too Far to Care), even "Won't Be Home," the (thankfully) lone representative of 2004's Drag It Up). But the band -- Miller included -- really kicked into gear in the second half. That's when they brought out "Four Leaf Clover," "Hand Off," "The Other Shoe" and one of Aftermath's personal favorites, "Barrier Reef."
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Bizarrely enough, just as the band was finally starting to take off...the audience started trickling out. There was the usual ebb and flow of smokers and people hitting the bathroom during Hammond's songs (sorry Murry, our wife still thinks you're the bee's knees), but after "Doreen" the exodus really began. By the time Miller finished his obligatory solo showcase ("Come Around." "Singular Girl"), the floor was noticeably easier to traverse, and Aftermath was able to walk right up to the stage.
Late nights are tough when you get older. The 97s themselves are noticeably grayer and...fleshier than ten years ago, just like their audience. Most of us who grew up with the band don't live in a fourplex off Montrose anymore, and that drive out to Sugar Land is pretty arduous once midnight rolls around.
Maybe that explains the band's renewed enthusiasm as the night waned, maybe they realized the downtown trendies and people who only knew them from Vince Vaughn movies would move along early, leaving only the diehards for the final three song burst of "Dance With Me," "Big Brown Eyes" and (of course) "Timebomb."
Or maybe they were just ready for bed as well. It was still a solid show, just not one of their best. Our recommendation? Play somewhere with a pulse next time, and not the House of quote-unquote "Blues."