Old 97’s – [Live]

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Rushing home from the airport after flying in from a business trip from Albuquerque, my focus had been getting back to my wife and our newborn so I could see him before he went down for the night. With that accomplished I flashed back to the plane ride into LAX where I spent time decompressing from my business meetings by scanning the impressive catalogue of material Old 97’s have amassed in their 15-year history, wondering how tonight’s set list would shake out. I’ve been seeing this bad religiously for the better part of last 10 years and it always seems like they don’t get enough time to represent their catalogue well in the short time span of 2 hours that constitutes a show. With the addition of their 8th studio effort, Blame It On Gravity, four weeks ago, this task seemed like it might be insurmountable, especially knowing how strong the material on the new release is.

The last couple of times I have seen this band in L.A., I have been left feeling a little empty. Their performance has never failed to impress, but the L.A. crowd that goes to check them out seems to be indifferent to their surroundings and the emotional outpouring of the music on stage. I hadn’t experienced that in Portland or Seattle, the other cities in which I have seen them before. Knowing that they’re playing at a fairly new venue to L.A., Crash Mansion, tonight my hope was for a different vibe and buzz in the crowd.

Arriving at the venue with my photographer and friend Rob in tow, we we’re instantly impressed at the set up they have at Crash Mansion and the money invested into the venue by the Bowery Group to provide a state-of-the-art music club experience in the downtown area. It was a little toasty inside given the recent weather and a few fans could have really done some good in curbing my appetite for cold beer, then again maybe not.

The band hit the stage shortly after 10 to a rousing welcome from the crowd, which started to put my fears to rest of the L.A.-crowd factor playing a less than positive role in the show. Rhett Miller stepped to the microphone, wasting no time diving head long in “The Fool” off of their aforementioned release. This track resurrects their older alt-country sensibilities with the spit and pop polish of Satellite Rides, a theme that seems to be threaded throughout their new release. We were standing stage right as the show kicked off in front of lead guitarist Ken Bethea, who launched into one of many Old 97’s crowd pleasers like “Barrier Reef.” The first couple of songs really got the crowd fired up and it seemed like they were there to participate instead of putting on the “too cool for school” L.A. act.

Ripping into “The One,” another new track off of Blame It On Gravity, kept the energy level high, and the night seemed to be kicking off strong. This was backed up by “The New Kid” off of 2004’s Drag It Up as things started to really sizzle. As Rhett donned an acoustic guitar, he joked with the crowd about how hardcore they were for being in downtown to check out their live set making sure the unusual downtown L.A. setting of Crash Mansion didn’t go unnoticed. The band then false started into “No Baby I,” another new track, the only noticeable lack of tightness throughout the evening. Even with the false start the song was really delivered with studio precision after they regrouped.

The band continued to tear through a few more songs that are a great mix of 97 staples. Murry Hammond made his first vocal appearance paying tribute to his homeland roots with “W. TX Teardrops,” which was followed up by Rhett singing the much-celebrated “Question.” Picking up the pace, the band jumped into the jangley pop song “Oppenheimer” off of 1999’s Fight Songs, one of only two songs off this release to make an appearance. They continued to kick down the door with another new track I was hoping they wouldn’t bypass off their new one, as “Early Morning” continued the tight barrage of finely crafted songs the band have built their reputation on.

Catching their breath for a minute, Rhett welcomed Ricky Ray Jackson, who was backing opening act Hayes Carll, to the stage toting his steel guitar. They proceeded to launch into “Nite Club” off of 1997’s Too Far To Care. This is a song I have been dying to hear for years and never had the pleasure of hearing it live. The heartache tale of life on the road, playing various clubs and the trouble it causes loved ones wasn’t lost on me after rushing to this show directly from a business trip. The acoustic Rhett continued through “Color of a Lonely Heart,” a new Murray track and straight into “Lonely Holiday.” We then saw Rickey Ray make one more steel guitar appearance on “Salome.”

Rhett put down the acoustic and strapped on the electric to end the set by diving into another round of 97 faves to shut down the final part of the set. “Victoria,” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Roller Skate Skinny” (a track Rhett proudly claims to have written in L.A.) and was capped with a new tune, “The Easy Way.” The crowd seemed full tilt into it especially during “Big Brown Eyes,” responding loudly to Rhett’s cries of “I’ve got issues, yeah” with “Like I miss you, yeah.”

Worn out from the day and the intensity level of the show, I looked over at Rob who had a 6am flight scheduled to Chicago thinking the encores might not go long since the band had already ripped through nearly 20 songs. Rhett returned solo to the stage for a couple of quick ones off of his solo release, The Instigator, while the band likely took a break to grab a cold one and wipe the sweat away from what had been a hot performance so far. He gave the honor of choosing a song to “The one who was having the most fun tonight,” which turned out to be “Terrible Vision” followed by “Come Around.” Murray then came up to perform his tender ballad of heartache, “Valentine.” At this point in the encore I was thinking we’re going to get one more standard-issue song from the band likely to be “Time Bomb.” I’ve seen these songs and this encore format at several of their shows and was pleasantly surprised to see them break out three more tracks. One more new track, “Dance With Me,” was played while Rhett showed the crowd his windmill strum technique one more time, which borders on cartoonish elbow dislocation. Two more rockers shut the show down, “Won’t Be Home” and “Four Leaf Clover.”

All in all, this was probably the best show I’ve seen the band play in a while. Maybe it’s the infusion of new material that keeps them on the stage for 25+ songs or maybe it was just the fact that they finally got a crowd in L.A. that was actually invested in the show. They also did a great job of hitting many high points, representing their entire catalogue as well as they could have. If I had my way, they would have played another 25 songs.


The Old 97’s — Blame It on Gravity. Buy it NOW on Amazon!

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