The best comment I've ever heard about the Old 97's came from my dad: "They're what the Beatles would sound like if they hired Neil Young as a guitar player." That gets them just about right, I think. The Old 97's frequently get slotted as alt-country, but while they certainly make clear their strong roots music influences (hell, they took their name from a country song), you'd be hard pressed to find better straight-up pop-rock tunesmiths than this Texas quartet. I've loved them since I discovered them in college, so it was a given that I'd go see them when they came to town.
I counted about fifty people when I got down to the Knitting Factory around 7:30 pm. That was a pretty solid crowd, I thought, considering that showtime was listed as 8:00 on my ticket. By the time that the Old 97's took the stage, the audience must have numbered well over a hundred and looked evenly split between twenty/thirty-somethings and forty/fifty-somethings.
At the request of the Knitting Factory's security, I didn't take any pictures with my phone during the show. This means that my reportage will have to suffice for this post. Sorry about that, folks. I know it's not that big a loss, but still...
Rhett Miller, the lead singer and songwriter for the Old 97's, started off the evening's music early with a solo acoustic set. From what I caught of it, he just performed songs from his recent solo albums (not counting his more than fitting cover of "Wreck of the Old '97"). His rapid, rhythmic strumming, his witty lyrics and his sly, aching tenor combined to provide a nice coming attraction for his set with the rest of the band later on.
The Nashville-based country-punk group Those Darlins played soon after Miller. I'd seen them twice before at Neurolux, once opening for Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and once headlining. I'd greatly enjoyed them both times, and although they felt a notch less intense playing this far less intimate venue, I greatly enjoyed them this night too. Sporting a skimpy, sparkling red dress and cropped, curly black locks, petite Jessi Darlin tossed off searing guitar solos and sang in a twangy, girly snarl that called to mind Wanda Jackson. Nikki Darlin slashed out the rhythm on her guitar and complemented her fellow Darlin vocally with her low, breathy, sultry voice. Meanwhile, new guy Spencer Duncan's limber bass and Linwood Regensburg's strong, restrained drumming kept things strutting, swaggering and zooming forward. During his acoustic set, Rhett Miller told the crowd that Those Darlins were the Old 97's favorite new band. The Darlins' smart, sassy, tunefully tough songs suggested that that may not have been your usual rock show jive.
Not long after Those Darlins finished, the Old 97's took the stage. Wearing blue jeans and t-shirts, they looked as if they could've just climbed onstage from among the folks in the Knitting Factory's pit. The higher end of Rhett Miller's voice show some signs of wear and tear and his bandmates had plenty of gray in their hair, but those seemed to have been the only concessions to ageing that this twenty year-old group has made so far. They blazed through the entirety of their 1997 album Too Far to Care and an assortment of old and new songs with the joyful rowdiness of dudes half their age. Miller did some cute little windmilling moves on his guitars and gave ample proof that his mid-range, shout and falsetto are holding up just fine. Bespectacled Murry Hammond contributed some liquid basslines and got to croon lead on a few songs with his friendly, twangy drawl. Ken Bethea delivered one fiery guitar solo after another for the entire set. Philip Peeples's muscular, turbo-charged drumming sounded like he was channeling the spirit of Keith Moon. By the end of their set, the 97's had nearly everyone in the crowd dancing, jumping and shouting. Personal highlights included the careening, I'm-so-lonesome-I-could-explode opener/closer "Timebomb," the supernal one-night-stand vignette "Barrier Reef," the punky swing/stomp "The Grand Theatre," the utterly gorgeous "Question" and the raucous "Four Leaf Clover," which featured Jessi Darlin ably handling the Exene Cervenka part.
You can find info on the Old 97's and Those Darlins on Facebook and elsewhere online.