Oh, dutiful journalism, the places I will go in your name. Last night, one of those places just had to be House of Blues. It's always a pleasure to watch Old 97's and I would put up that good fight to keep my spirits high in what is arguably my least favorite venue in town. But enough with the pouting; and on with the show (both literal and metaphorical, of course).
Earlier in the day I had learned that there was a campaign of misinformation indicating that the show would be kicked off by Nashville's Those Darlin's. This was sadly not the case. But who would it be? My best guess upon seeing the stage set-up for the first band was that it would be Oprah. I would not be getting a BRAND NEW CAR(!!!!!) tonight, no I would be adequately entertained by The O's.
The internet blackout didn't prevent me from finding out that these two very well practiced boys are from Dallas. If you weren't there, I'll offer some suggestions for you to listen to get the idea. Play one of each out of two different speakers at the same time: Neutral Milk Hotel & Dashboard Confessional, Gin Blossoms & Tom Petty, Son Volt & John (Cougar or no--ladies' choice) Mellencamp, Train & Black Keys and finally They Might Be Giants & Diamond Rio.
There was one guy, who we assumed was from Kentucky for some reason, playing guitar and a large antiquated kick drum. The other could have possibly been Chris Lilley (Summer Heights High, Angry Boys) in disguise as a quasi-indie-MOR-rocker and he played banjo and pedal steel. So here they have the "interesting instrumentation" but it didn't seem to be more than affectation. They could have capably performed these songs as a traditional rock band and be played during drive time or used to sell cell phones to people with "large circles." But you've gotta give white men in tucked in shirts something to talk about at the office tomorrow, I suppose. "Guess what? BANJO! Fucking choice."
Next up was a solo set by Old 97's front man, Rhett Miller. I'm not exactly sure this didn't happen at Cactus earlier in the evening. That would have made a lot more sense, but it makes me believe the conspiratorial theories about bands hating their fans and making them go to House of Blues and spend ungodly amounts of money at every turn with kickbacks from the venue for keeping them there longer to spend more. At least that's how my dog tells it.
So, Miller's set seemed like a terrible idea in theory. My husband said "If I was in this guy's band I would be so mad. I'd be backstage all...(dismissive wanking motion)." And I had my doubts at first as well, having purchased Miller's first two solo albums and finding myself hard-pressed to think of more than two or three songs that'd like to hear. But as though I had paid my penance (and dollars!) to the gods of Alternative Adult Contemporary, Miller delivered a set that was great in action that comprised of those exact songs plus a couple of very pleasant surprises. He started off with "Help Me, Suzanne", probably my favorite song off of The Believer. He followed that up with a story about an ill-fated opportunity to be Billy Bragg's back-up band in lieu of Wilco on a European tour. Though the tour didn't happen Miller was still happy to bust out a song from the Bragg-Wilco collab, "California Stars". Wow. This is one of my favorite songs of all time and something about Rhett Miller's voice and phrasing just suit that song so well. It also made me realize that Old 97's were like Wilco for people who thought Wilco were too weird.
He followed this up with "Come Around", "Singular Girl", the 97's "Nineteen" (explaining that the rest of the band refused to play it anymore) and finally a pretty nice little new song. I'm not quite sure it was imperative that he play this little mini-set, but I'm glad he did. The acoustic versions of these songs seemed more natural than the full band arrangements on his albums.
There was a brief intermission and the Old 97's took the stage with "Doreen". The guys are pros and even if they got up there and played nothing but new songs, we'd all still enjoy it. Luckily for us all they delivered a solid mix of old and new, each one as great as the one before. Murry Hammond would drop in here and there on "W. Tx Teardrops" and Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried". Hammond has kind of a Roy Orbison thing going on and it's a shame that he doesn't share the spotlight with Miller even more.
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Between sets, I had told my husband to wait to close his tab until they played "Salome". Like clockwork, just as we finished our penultimate drinks, the familiar notes rang out. Slow dancing couples popped up all across the venue. While we closed out we enjoyed the Replacements-style breakdown at the end of "Please Hold on While the Train is Moving". They followed it up with "Question" which I was sad to see pass with little fanfare. A few years back I saw them at The Meridian and during this song a guy came up on stage and proposed to his girlfriend and just coincidentally I totally got something in my eye at that exact same moment. But even without the spectacle, the song is always fantastic.
They did keep to their more recent output for the most part, playing far less from Satellite Rides and Too Far To Care than they have in the past. Thankfully, they played "Roller Skate-Skinny" from the former, but unfortunately did not play "Designs On You". They reached back for fake-out closer "Over the Cliff" and a minute didn't pass before Hammond was back to perform "Valentine" alone. They closed the whole thing down with "Timebomb"(which my husband kept insisting that they had already played when I asked just before the encore).
So, House of Blues animosity aside, this was a really solid night for some alt-country fun. If you can build a time machine, go back and catch this show if you get a chance. I mean, I guess if you've got a time machine, you've probably got a lot on your plate already, but you know, if you get a chance.
(Special side note: I counted 46 pearl-snap cowboy shirts.)