“Welcome to this great experiment: an evening with the Old 97’s.”

So announced Old 97’s bassist Murry Hammond, as he sheepishly stepped on stage, carrying a hefty acoustic guitar and a genteel demeanor, to perform a handful of his relatively obscure solo songs. What Hammond neglected to mention is that it was also an evening with a filled-to-capacity Recher Theatre crowd, few of whom responded to Hammond’s more-country-than-alt compositions. With a husky croon somewhere between Jim Reeves and Waylon Jennings, and a firmly traditionalist ethos, Hammond’s affable and occasionally moving music was met with polite applause at best and outright contempt at worst. The cramped spectators grew restless with his funereal songs and self-effacing anecdotes, and only perked up when he launched into “Valentine,” his greatest contribution to the night’s more raucous main attraction.

“Murry’s more folk and country, Rhett’s more poppy,” explained one die-hard Old 97’s fan in between sets. And sure enough, Rhett Miller was indeed a livelier, catchier successor: a rock ‘n’ roll heartthrob contrasting Hammond’s avuncular professorial American History. With just an acoustic guitar and a velvety voice, Miller owned the stage like an actual pop star. His shaggy dirty blonde hair framed his gaunt face, and he delivered his heartfelt pop tunes with a suave, self-assured strut. The set was drawn almost exclusively from Miller’s solid new self-titled album, released only a couple weeks ago. He flubbed the words to “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore” and casually shrugged off the lapse. He added f-bombs, shamefully omitted from the album version, to the hilarious “Another Girlfriend.” And he even did a poor but charming Rachael Yamagata imitation on the duet “Fireflies.” When Miller launched into “Our Love,” popularized on Scrubs and a dozen teen dramas, he not only ignited a club-wide sing-along, but with his Townshend-esque guitar-strumming windmills, foreshadowed the incorrigible vivacity to come.

In 2005, the Old 97’s released Alive and Wired, a double-disc live album that ranks among the best concert records released this decade. And the plugged-in, full-band set justified the band’s reputation as not just one of the finest live acts on the alt-country circuit, but one of the finest live rock acts period. At their most electrifying, the Old 97’s can suggest the Replacements, if they had decided to grow up and become professional together rather than apart. They opened with the locomotive “Won’t Be Home,” and by the time they segued into song number two, the jovial “King of All of the World,” Miller’s silky dark blue button-down shirt was soaked. They balanced the glossy adult-pop of recent albums (“Moonlight,” “I Will Remain”) with early-days barroom blazers that quickly resurrected the torpedoing wildmen the records have suppressed. “Doreen,” “Big Brown Eyes” and a set-closing “Four Leaf Clover” exploded with galvanizing power, Miller’s mellifluous voice crescendoing into an unhinged scream on each. The encore produced a reverent cover of Bowie’s “Five Years,” and equally crazed renditions of 97’s staples “Murder (or a Heart Attack)” and “Timebomb.”

Between solo and group work, Miller has achieved 14 years of consistent songwriting brilliance: mature lyrics with expressive yet droll profundities on love and life, delivered with memorable hooks that wipe the floor with more beloved Americana indie-poets like Oberst or Tweedy. Better yet, Miller looks like he has a hell of a lot more fun doing this than those dour gents. When he leaned against Hammond during a frenzied guitar solo on “W. TX Teardrops,” conjuring a classic Jagger-Richards or Zander-Nielsen pose, or when he furrowed his brow into a Ryder-esque pout during the sneering chorus of “Rollerskate Skinny,” Miller seemed as lively as his music. His crack band was hardly a bunch of slackers though. Guitarist Ken Bethea was a silent-but-deadly shredder, often lingering at the periphery of the stage. Hammond was a goofy but adept foil whose harmonies helped the tender songs sparkle and the tougher songs sizzle. And drummer Philip Peeples expertly switched from lilting shuffle to galloping snare fills at the drop of a pick.

Sure, they know these moves by heart at this point. This is a job, after all, but the Old 97’s, like all fantastic live acts, make it appear to be the most thrilling job in the world, and leave the audience not just awestruck, but envious.

by Charles A. Hohman
[Photos: Scott Wyngarden]

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