Wednesday, August 6
Live: Old 97's and Sleepercar, Philadelphia, PA
Walking across Philadelphia on my way to the Trocadero last Wednesday (7/30/08), I had visions of kids ages 16 – 24 rocking along side me to the county alt-pop of the Old 97’s, America’s finest cow-punks. That noble vision, one of an entire class of kids I never knew who could appreciate music with a dash (and often way more) of country without being ignorant, didn’t really pan out. The crowd for the 97’s definitely skewed more towards the 30s and 40s than it did the teens. This was punctuated by an overly crowded 21+ balcony and an extended bar on the main floor.
A little bummed about my generation but no less excited by the prospect of seeing an old favorite live for the first time, I took my place alongside the fanatical and the young on the floor and settled in for Sleepercar, the show’s opener.
Regular LOTD readers (hah!) might recall Sleepercar, Jim Ward’s country solo project, getting treatment a few months back. In my original review of his album West Texas, one of my biggest gripes was Ward’s voice, which irked me for its lack of variation between a conversational low and an almost post-rock yell. While I stand by initial review, it’s clear that I underestimated the power behind Ward’s pipes.
The set started off with “A Broken Promise,” West Texas’s excellent album opener, and only went up from there. Ward and his backing band looked a little green at first, as this tour is their first major outing as a band. Ward seemed timid in between songs, and there were times when the entire band looked more like wide-eyed teens than seasoned rock vets.
Still, the best songs from West Texas more than held up live. “Kings& Compromises” sounded full and rocking, with four of the five dudes on stage adding to the song’s excellent chorus. The show stopper was “Wednesday Nights,” in which Ward’s voice was so powerful that I had to re-think my original criticism. Ward crooned and called with a fervor and passion that can only translate live, all while the saddest steel guitar plucked behind him. The band isn’t ready for the big time yet, but they make for a fine opening act.
As the Old 97’s took the stage, I was struck by how…er…old they all looked. Sure, they’ve been putting out albums for 13 years, but that kind of thing never really sinks in. Drummer Philip Peeples looked like someone’s dad (hell, he might be someone’s dad), guitarist Ken Bethea looked like an aging hipster and bass player Murray Hammond might be the goofiest looking man in rock, like the combination of a science teacher and a Muppet. Only lead man Rhett Miller looked like a young man, probably because of his steady diet of sleeping with beautiful women.
The band played a set that leaned heavily on their excellent new album Blame it on Gravity, and some songs stood next to the classics better than others. Show opener “The Fool” didn’t play well next to fan favorite and 97’s classic “Barrier Reef,” but “No Baby I” and “Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue” sounded right at home. Also present in the main set were classics like “Nightclub,” “Buick City Complex” and “Hands Off.” Especially awesome was “Smoker,” which is a total slip track on Drag it Up, but rocked out with a furious intensity live.
The band has a reputation for being great live, and I’ve got nothing to detract from said rep. It’s rare to see a group perform their material tightly while appearing loose on stage, which is exactly what the 97’s were able to do. Bethea was a stone-faced madman, ripping off solo after solo as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Hammond was all smiles and non-sequesters, displaying a nerdy charm that was both comical and endearing. Miller pounded on his acoustic guitar, breaking strings three times throughout, shaking his hips like Elvis incarnate, his eyes scanning the crowd for a woman to bed and his mouth permanently fixed with a scoundrel’s smile. The confidence was oozing off the stage; they rocked and they knew it.
The band played two encores. The first allowed for both Hammond and Miller to do some solo performances, and while Miller’s “Singular Girl” was nice, Hammond’s pure country drawl outshone on “Valentine.” The entire band came back out to blast the audience with “Dance with Me” off of Gravity and “Doreen,” from Wreck Your Life before leaving again only to be called back out for one more go around. The second encore was brief and fun, with the band playing “Timebomb” and “The New Kid” before finally calling it a night.
The Old 97’s lived up to both my personal expectations and their established hype. I’ll be sure to catch them again next time they come around. Now if I could just get someone under the age of 30 to like this band.