Last Night: The Old 97's at House of Blues

The Old 97's House of Blues August 23, 2012

Too Far to Care is an album about growing up the hard way but having a lot of fun while you do it. It was made by a band who thought the world was about to be at their feet, that they were about to break through to the big time. Showbiz!

That isn't quite what happened. The Old 97's never became true rock stars, maybe, but instead grew into something even more important in this age of downsizing and diminishing returns: Tradesmen.

Released in 1997, about five years before tumbleweeds started blowing through mom-and-pop music stores and something called "file-sharing" was suddenly all the rage, Too Far has aged in subtle ways. Today it's almost shocking how often singer Rhett Miller mentions the telephone.

Not smartphone, telephone. "If that phone don't ring one more time, I'm gonna lose what's left of my mind," he sings on "Big Brown Eyes." Didn't they have voicemail back then? Or how about, in the same song, "I'm calling time and temperature just for some company." Say what?

That's at 713-630-0222 in Houston, although I had to Google it to make sure it still exists.

But most of Too Far's ideas never get old. The album is littered with lines where the singer, most often Rhett Miller, is hoping he can cash the checks his mouth is writing. In the song of the same name, a key line on the album is "the streets of where I'm from are paved with hearts instead of gold" - part brag, part lament. A band that could write lyrics like that is obviously onto something.

Another is "what's so great about the Barrier Reef?" in, well, "Barrier Reef." It's just the kind of line some guy in his early twenties, cocky but secretly a little insecure, might try out on a girl he just met after the show.

But you can feel Miller growing up as the record plays on, when he sings "I'm tired of making friends, I'm tired of making time" in the dejected "Salome." The only thing around to soothe him are bassist Murry Hammond's ooh-ooh-ooh backing vocals... and they work.

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Too Far closes with "Four Leaf Clover," where drummer Phillip Peeples nicks the jungle rhythm of the Reverend Horton Heat's "The Devil's Chasing Me" and Miller acknowledges it's probably time to move on. And that's exactly what they did.

After they played all of Too Far Thursday night, the 97's treated the crowd to about a dozen other songs, most of which come from after 1997 besides Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," which must be one of the first songs they ever learned as a band, and a couple of cherries from 1995's Wreck Your Life ("Doreen," "Victoria"), that is. They even tossed in the two-stepping title track to their very first album, 1994's Hitchhike to Rhome, in the encore.

As Miller's hair gradually became stringy with sweat, it was easy to tell how much the band enjoys playing together, even after all this time. Hammond's grin was plastered on all night, and lead guitarist Ken Bethea often went far up on the neck but barely seemed to be touching his instrument at all. Late into the set, when he wandered over to center stage and cocked his head back in a classic "rock star" pose, it was so amusing - and uncharacteristic - I had to write it down.

The work of seasoned musicians, the latter-day 97's songs are a sight more grown-up. "Question," two albums later, captures the moment when Miller realizes he's ready to commit to an adult, lasting relationship, and he sounds as enthusiastic as he once did staring at those dressing room walls. "I'm a Trainwreck" and "Dance With Me" are two testaments that, to tweak an old Motorhead line, that the catch is better than the chase.

The hooks are a little more grown-up in the later songs, too -- sharper, more muscular and melodic, less enamored of Johnny Cash than the Kinks and the Stones. Adult pop songs don't get much shinier and prettier than "Rollerskate Skinny," and "Murder or a Heart Attack" too. Maybe their best song of all, "A State of Texas," celebrates the simple virtues of home with the vigor of one of their early punkish blasts like "Doreen." And that song came out in 2010.

The Old 97's earned their Too Far victory lap Thursday, but really showed that the album is now more important as a launching pad for what was to come: A successful career as a hard-working rock and roll band, and a damned good one at that.

Personal Bias: I don't know what you could possibly be talking about.

The Crowd: Loyal Old 97's fans. I think I knew just about everyone standing around me. The floor was almost full, but it would have been a good night to be in the balcony. Plenty of room up there.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Put in the article every time he does that thing with the the guitar, you have to drink" - "that thing" is this peculiar strumming motion Rhett Miller has, pawing at his guitar like an angry badger.

Random Notebook Dump: After any number of listens to my now-favorite 97's song, "A State of Texas," I just caught the Buddy Holly reference Thursday night. Doh.

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