“I’m surprised no one’s had a seizure yet.” Old 97′s frontman Rhett Miller delivered a good-natured jab in what ended up being a running joke throughout the night: the Wonder Ballroom’s newly installed stage lights, which were a cross between a KISS concert and a Pink Floyd Laser Spectacular. At one point I thought the mother ship had returned from Abell 3267.
The lights were only a slight distraction from an otherwise typically gritty and sweaty Old 97′s performance. TDoL’s favorite Dallas drawlers are a live band through and through, which might have something to do with their longevity. With the music industry shifting (or collapsing, depending on how you look at it) one thing is clear: If a band wants to make a career of it, you’d better hit the road and play like you mean it … or sell songs to TV commercials. The Old 97′s have wisely done both. Call it survival skills.
OK, it doesn’t hurt that Miller and Co. have almost two decades-worth of sturdy pop gems to pull from, most of which they can crank out on any given night. And tonight’s performance delivered a few surprises, including the excellent “Buick City Complex” from the band’s 2001 Brit Invasion nod Satellite Rides. In fact, the thing I noticed most was how well the Old 97′s poppier material meshed with their twangy stuff. I don’t even like “Murder (Or a Heart Attack).” But the song—peeled from the band’s most polished effort Fight Songs—became a raucous power pop classic on this night. Bassist Murry Hammond divvied up a fair amount of his tunes, including the neo-Cash shuffler “You Were Born to Be In Battle,” “W. TX Teardrops” and the acoustic heartbreaker “Valentine,” one of the band’s greats (I may or may not have teared up a little, just don’t tell anyone). All this is backed by guitarist/secret weapon Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples, who I’m betting has to change his snare head after every show.
The performance was marked by the occasional flubbed note and missed start, but that’s what makes it an Old 97′s show—this is punk rock at heart, and I’d trade in perfection/pretension for energy any day. I’ve also decided that an Old 97′s show is a good place for sociological experiments: The interplay between members who’ve shared the stage for 18 years—the grins, the glares. Not to mention the people who make up an Old 97′s audience: Mustachioed hipsters, leather-clad punks, pearl-button snap aficionados, babysitter payers, babysitters, me, you. All drenched in whiskey, a little Rhett Miller sweat and the Wonder Ballroom’s lighting system, which I’m happy to report did not cause anyone to lose their minds. The Old 97′s took care of that.
Photo by Mark Lore