Whenever people ask me what kind of music I dig and I tell them “alt-country”, I wait for the blank look on their face to pass, then tell them they should check out the Old 97’s. For ten years, they’ve been releasing great albums full of hooky rock with just the right amount of guitar twang to please fans and not scare off the curious or adventurous. And while I usually recommend to folks the band’s stone-cold masterpiece, 1997’s Too Far to Care, I can now also suggest the band’s first (but hopefully not last) concert DVD, Old 97’s Live.
Culled from a 2004 gig at Hollywood hangout the Troubadour, Live captures the band in fine form. Back together after a mini-hiatus following 2001’s Satellite Rides and lead singer Rhett Miller’s 2003 solo turn The Instigator , the Old 97’s — Miller, bassist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Phillip Peeples — charge through 20 songs, unveiling tracks from (the at-the-time-unreleased) Drag It Up (“Won’t Be Home”, “The New Kid”), cross-pollinating those tunes with favorite tracks from the band’s back catalogue, with five songs each from Fight Songs and Too Far to Care, four from Satellite Rides and an old-school gem in Wreck Your Life‘s “Doreen”. Spanning their indie label days to major label stint and return to the indie fold (they now call alt-country friendly New West Records home), Live is a superb intro to the band’s discography — call it a greatest hits album with a video track.
On record, Old 97’s songs are breezy and effortless-sounding, so on Live it’s good to see the band break a sweat churning out its songs. Miller, with his angular good looks and (by concert’s end) sweaty, chin-length locks, has the largely female crowd swooning; he’s the closest thing alt-country has to a sex symbol, even if that’s like being the best submarine captain in North Dakota. (And where have all the ladies been every time I’ve seen the band? Sigh.)
There’s definitely plenty for newbies to latch onto — not a dud song in the bunch, and a well-paced setlist, to boot — but the set’s closing three songs justify the purchase price alone: three smokin’ versions of “Doreen”, “Big Brown Eyes” and “Time Bomb”. If that last sentence means nothing to you, and you like fun rock music, go find this DVD. I can’t word it any more plainly.
Hardcore fans will likely enjoy the 12-minute featurette included on the DVD. Filmed while the band recorded Drag It Up, one gets the sense the band members genuinely respect one another and enjoy each other’s company. Miller may be the de facto leader (he fesses up to being a reformed micromanager), but every guy has an equal decision-making voice in the band. Granted, it’s not the most informative or insightful featurette, and it’ll never match Some Kind of Monster for capturing intraband dynamics, but it’s refreshing to see in the Old 97’s a band that doesn’t consider itself to be full of in-quotes “rock stars”. Says Miller, “If we had done the typical rock ‘n’ roll stuff, we wouldn’t have made it as a band these 11 years.”
Normal guys who love music and make music that lotsa people love? The Old 97’s, and Old 97’s Live, showcase everything that’s right with rock music today.