The Old 97's use two decades of experience to make being professional feel like anything but that.
The Old 97's + Rhett Miller + The O'sCity: Charlottesville, VA
Venue: The Jefferson Theater
The music had started when I finally got inside the theater, but an unusual number of people were already filling the main floor. Given that the show started before the announced time and openers The O's were unlikely to have produced such an audience, I could only guess that last April's remarkable Old 97's show was good enough to make fans bring their friends, and to get there in time to claim a good spot.
I made my way to the front and realized that The O's were doing a pretty good job holding a restless crowd. An alt-country sort of guitar-and-banjo duo, Taylor Young and John Pedigo were rowdy enough, and throwing in some lap steel never hurt anyone's act. Being from Dallas made them a friendly choice for the Old 97's (who are only clinically a Dallas band at this point), but they proved they deserve it.
The next act, of course, deserved the stage. Rhett Miller, front man for the 97's, came out for a brief solo set in support of his recent release The Interpreter: Live at Largo and to announce a new solo album to come out this summer. I overheard a man next to me explaining to someone I presume was his date who Miller was a song or two into his set. I wondered if her question was reflective of the theory Miller's said he's been told that, unintentionally, the solo songs are for girls and the band songs are for girls. I couldn't hear the woman's tone, but she was having fun. It also fit with my idea that friends were being dragged along to the show, which, I later found out, did sell out.
New fans were only part of the diversity though, as it was one of the most diverse crowds I've seen at such a raucous show in sometime (assuming diversity among only white people). The Jefferson Theater can attract an array of people because it's a great hall. Now 100 years old, the venue's been a vaudeville theater, a second-run movie house and now a concert space worth the loss of $3 movies. The balcony adds an effect appropriate for this Grand Theatre, Volume Two tour, but you wouldn't want to be up there for this scene. And down on the floor you could mix with anyone from kids to people close to my grandparents' age, one of whom was easily the best dancer of the night.
Miller played a few solo songs last spring between the main set and the encore. For that position, he performed a calm, subdued set, creating a breather in the midst of the chaos. This time bassist Murry Hammond would get just "Valentine" for that purpose, advertising his new charity CD. As an opener, Miller played more recklessly, working up a little sweat for him and us before the big show. A track like "I Need to Know Where I Stand" went from the charming, eye-raising rendition he's done to a more pounding take on feeling on edge and helpless.
The band itself came out on the edge of control with the surprising choice of "Doreen", an exciting, but one that's not nearing 20 years old, atypical way to open a show supporting a new album (and two in not much over a year). The Old 97's tend to vary their setlist quite a bit, and typically work up a new one for every show, a process that can take as long as the actual concert. If nothing else, it got the audience both off balance and wound up immediately.
If the song choices vary nightly, the general approach doesn't: play hard and wild and have fun. Even mid-tempo numbers end up a bit frenetic. It's no wonder that Hammond announced "I'm a Trainwreck" as his favorite song to play. It suits the mood of the shows lyrically and musically, and it should have an obvious appeal to an amateur railroad historian playing in a band named for a crashed engine.
The band members themselves are a little more predictable. Miller seems to be constantly having fun, and a little surprised and amused that after all these years, the audience responds like it does. Some nights he sprays less spit and water into the air. Hammond seems happy to be there, like he's at home, and drummer Philip Peeples just seems focused, maybe necessary for his parts. I can never quite tell if Ken Bethea is having a good time or not because he looks so serious, but it's hard not to get caught up in his jumping around and occasional guitarist posturing. He buys into the ridiculous vocals on "White Port", one of the band's silliest songs, and one which can only be more infectious live.
This night the band didn't rely too much on its new stuff and drew especially heavily from Too Far to Care, with "Salome" providing some tempo relief and "Barrier Reef", the night's biggest singalong. The album also played an important role in the night's ending, the group crashing through "Four Leaf Clover" to end the set, but only after Miller a few songs previous deadpanned that the night was going quickly and he hoped we'd ask them back for an encore. The night closed with the expected, the raging "Timebomb", the performance that made sense of the fact that the Jefferson Theater advertises that the Three Stooges performed here.
Walking out into the cold night brought the realization that it was an inherently professional concert by a group of veterans, with enough surprises to keep it exciting and enough of the expected to keep it satisfying. At the same time, the band exchanged enough glances to suggest in-jokes, cut-off banter, and unexpected intros. Everyone, at least at times, seemed to enjoy themselves, and what made it all work so well in the end was probably the fact that in never felt professional. Well, that and the great songs.