Friday, January 21, 2011

Old 97's concert review: Santa Ana, Calif.

A version of my review originally appeared at on the Soundcheck blog. Photos by Robert Kinsler.

When the Old 97’s launched into “Please Hold On While the Train is Moving” toward end of their Thursday night set, the new barnburner could’ve easily described what just came before it. During a loose and boisterous 90-minute performance at the Galaxy Theatre, the quartet rarely slowed down the pace. Fans packed the pit area and the venue was fairly full.

Among the forerunners of alt-country music, the Old 97’s started in Dallas nearly two decades ago. Despite expanding into power pop and other areas in subsequent years, the guys have never achieved their commercial due. Solid eighth studio album “The Grand Theatre, Vol. 1” came out last October (originally conceived as a double collection, “Vol. 2” is expected in late spring). Lead vocalist Rhett Miller (pictured, left) has compared the songs’ diverse stylistic tone to garage rock and The Clash’s “London Calling.” That might be wishful thinking; more aggressiveness does factor into the equation though.   

Taking the stage to “Stuck in the Middle” by Stealers Wheel (whose singer Gerry Rafferty died on Jan. 4), bassist/singer Murry Hammond casually began doing the tune and drummer Philip Peeples joined in for a minute. Then they started the title track to “Grand Theatre,” featuring the first of many sharp electric guitar solos from Ken Bethea (pictured, below). The setlist primarily focused on the latest effort and 1997’s “Too Far To Care.”

Miller didn’t traverse the stage as he often does, but plenty of head-bobbing and windmill motions on acoustic and electric guitars commenced. Various lyrics were excitedly punctuated with “oh yeah” exclamations.

The poppy “Buick City Complex” and the more tempered “No Baby I,” where Miller sang in a lower register, were early highlights. Some “Grand Theatre” songs were inspired by different locales and the best is “Champaign, Illinois.” Based on Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” the band got rare permission to change the lyrics after Zimmy liked what Miller did and even agreed to split publishing royalties. Here, the jangly number contained supple harmonies.

Geographical music lessons continued via the steamrolling “West Texas Teardrops” and “A State of Texas” (about inhabiting a Lone Star State mindset). Bethea’s reverberating tremolo guitar work on the dark “Stoned” (off 1994 debut “Hitchhike to Rhome”) and Miller’s yelping vocals were an abrupt change.

Prior to the sweet marriage ballad “Question,” a guy came onstage and proposed to his girlfriend, a Galaxy bartender. The crowd went nuts afterward. I used to dismiss Hammond’s lead vocal contributions as second rate to Miller’s, but he definitely holds his own now. One example is the chugging Johnny Cash-style “You Were Born to Be in Battle,” which retained a Sun Records outtake feel in its live incarnation. 

“I like this club a lot,” raved Miller (he did a great solo Galaxy show about a year ago), before Hammond took the lead vocal reigns again on the haunting “Smokers,” driven by Bethea’s wild surf guitar playing.  

Hammond warned the crowd that they were in for a “sheer psychedelic assault” on the epic “Please Hold On While the Train is Moving.” No kidding. Miller’s lyrics referenced Pink Floyd, Bethea’s guitar sounds ranged from spacey to Kinksian and the bassist did some McCartney-esque runs.

Peeples held down workmanlike beats throughout the evening and really proved his mettle on the tribal, nearly punk “4 Leaf Clover,” where Miller yelled the words and the group pulled out all the stops.

Old 97’s, Galaxy Theatre, Santa Ana, Jan. 20, 2011

Main set: The Grand Theatre/The Magician/Niteclub/You Smoke Too Much/Buick City Complex/No Baby I/Champaign, Illinois/West Texas Teardrops/A State of Texas/Stoned/Question/You Were Born to Be in Battle/Barrier Reef/The Dance Class/Goin’ Goin’ Gone/Smokers/Please Hold On While the Train is Moving/4 Leaf Clover
Encores: Won’t Be Home/Dance with Me/Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)/Timebomb

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