I’ve seen so many mediocre live bands, I sometimes forget the heart-stopping ecstasy of seeing a great one. So many new rock bands stumble onstage for an hour or so, turn in lazy, bored performances, and completely ignor the excitable fans trying their mightiest to make it a significant experience. Thank God for the Old 97s.
After years of longing, I finally made it to their show last fall in Minneapolis. Despite the hype from my friends, I wasn’t disappointed: what I got was a loud, fast, sweaty, ragged show from a band that seemed to delight in every single note. And it doesn’t hurt to have a lead singer so charming he almost makes the term “ladykiller” literal.
Since 1993, the Old 97s have been knocking fans on their asses with shows of this caliber, and now they have released a two-disc live album, Alive and Wired. Recorded in their home state of Texas early this past summer, Alive and Wired makes the Old 97s experience accessible to those not lucky enough to see them in concert.
The first disc begins with the crash of “Melt Show”, as lead singer Rhett Miller says, “This song is dedicated to all y’all right up front.” The audience trembles with the feeling that the most popular boy in school just noticed them, and the show begins.
The first disc covers a lot of classic territory, with hits from all of the band’s albums, focusing heavily on 1997’s Too Far To Care, 2000’s Satellite Rides, and last year’s Drag It Up. Thankfully, Old 97s never sacrifice the old for the new. Too Far To Care‘s crowd-pleaser “Barrier Reef” comes early, featuring some of Miller’s best lyrics: “My heart wasn’t in it / Not for one single minute / I went through the motions with her / Her on top and me on liquor.”
It’s hit after hit from there on out, with guitarists Ken Bethea and Murray Hammond stepping up to the mic to play their own tunes. They’re a little bit country, sure, but Old 97s embody the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Disc one finishes with highlights “Rollerskate Skinny”, “Wish the Worst"m and the fantastic “Won’t Be Home” from Drag It Up.
What is great about this set is that one disc feels like enough, but once you hear the second you know it’s necessary. It builds appropriately, exploding into “If My Heart Was a Car” and “Four Leaf Clover”. Miller’s voice is getting raw, but this just provokes him to push it further, and his band mates launch into tricky impromptu solos and impossibly fast drumming. Warming up with the oldies “Big Brown Eyes” and “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)”, the band transitions into their standby closer, “Time Bomb”, a fast-paced rockabilly number throughout which they come together and fall apart, Rhett Miller stumbling and shouting in the middle of it all.
“You’re gonna kill me / Oh Celeste!” he screams, and I can’t help but think of how lucky she is to be the subject of this mess. “Havin’ her on my brain’s like gettin’ hit by a train!” Miller wails, and the instruments break apart and shatter. The crowd leaves dazed, wondering if they were hit by a train. But it was just a live show from one of the greatest bands playing today; it was just old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.