Reviews

Old 97's, Blueland
Great American Music Hall
Thursday, Aug. 7

Aside from being the most visually satisfying place to see bands in S.F., the Great American Music Hall, by virtue of its name alone, can apparently honor performers in just the right way. To call Old 97's (who played the Hall Aug. 7) great American music isn't hyperbole. They live up to the name the way many greats have throughout the history of U.S. pop: by writing catchy songs that, through lyrical invention, speak to listeners in voices much like their own about experiences they think they've had. As Americans, we like to imagine ourselves as part of a great and righteous story. We love unrequitedly, we hurt inconsolably, we bear up under adversity heroically. (Supposedly.) Stories about these attributes, played to a steady backbeat and set in a soaring major key, form the basis of much that is enduring in one of the most American of pop music forms: country and western. Old 97's take this formula, throw in some punk-inspired tempos, moves, and attitude, and come up grinning with an audience clenched in their teeth.

The show started promptly, with the opening band, Blueland, leaving the stage just before 9 o'clock. (I saw the singer checking his watch during their last song, something I and many in attendance had been doing early in their set.) Blueland are a Britpop simulation with a few decent songs and no surprises. Their singer -- all fluttering eyelashes and hair parted just so -- is a self-conscious putz and, frankly, embarrassing to watch, but also perversely fascinating, like someone sitting across from you in an emergency room with a compound fracture. Word has it that Blueland have some big local industry insiders behind them, so I'm sure they will find a video director skilled enough to make them look like stars.

I was surprised to see Old 97's looking as collegiate as they did. I had imagined a vaguely hip coterie -- maybe with matching jackets, a string tie or two -- not a poli-sci field trip. Regardless, after making an announcement about their regular drummer's ear infection and the "battlefield promotion" of their manager onto the drum throne, they proceeded to make all discussion of their look irrelevant.

Running through almost their entire new album Too Far to Care (as well as several older originals and a couple of covers), Old 97's managed to remain entirely entertaining through their entire set, never once resorting to the kind of gimmickry upon which lesser bands with similar sounds lean heavily. There was no phony aw-shucks hick act, no glib trailer trash references, just tightly arranged songs and musicianship that went as far as it had to and no further. (A band without a shtick? S.F. groups take note!) The guitar lead on "Streets of Where I'm From" was shrill and evil, but precise and melodic at the same time. Consistently, the lead guitarist checked in with tasty little slices of rockabilly pie, each one surprisingly fresh live, despite occasionally sounding rote on the recorded work.

The greatest asset Old 97's possess is gifted singer and lyricist Rhett Miller. With songs this straightforward, a clever lyric can be the difference between a classic and the musical equivalent of chewing gum, ready to be discarded when its three minutes of flavor have elapsed. While "Melt Show," "Barrier Reef," and (especially) "Niteclub" have yet to be officially added to the rock canon, they stand a better chance than many of their contemporaries. From "Barrier Reef":

My heart wasn't in it, not for one single minute
I went through the motions with her [nice pause here] on top, and me on liquor

Didn't do no good, well I didn't think it would
It's a tidy summary of a situation many men pretend to be in, with the ironic pause tipping us off that the protagonist is aware of the listener's ear and likely skepticism. Miller hit all his notes, and his occasionally too-clever lines lost some of their smugness in his powerful voicing. I wish he hadn't thrown away one of the few really poignant phrases on Too Far to Care -- "My life was misspent, don't let me be misunderstood," from "Niteclub" -- but I suppose a song about the miseries of touring is probably easier to sell when a crush of singing, dancing, fist-pumping fans isn't smiling into your face. Don't let me be misunderstood, however: Old 97's put on the best show I've seen in many months.

(Special thanks go to the Great American Music Hall for keeping the bill to two bands; the show let out by 10:30, just right for us working stiffs.)

-- Paul Kimball

Wyclef Jean
Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival
featuring the Refugee All-Stars
(Ruffhouse)

Wyclef Jean, one third of the Fugees, wants to televise his revolution. In addition, he wants everyone from Erykah Badu to Downtown Julie Brown dancing in the streets of every chocolate city throughout the African diaspora. It's that kind of raging ambition that makes this side project much more than an opportunistic spinoff of The Score, his group's landmark 1996 recording. It also means that if the Refugee All-Stars become a supergroup, then U2 will look pretty damned modest by comparison.

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