The Old 97's
September 17, 2015
The Fillmore, San Francisco
Better Than: Trying to catch a Muni during Dreamforce.
Big Brown Eyes. The Barrier Reef. Caroline Lee. Timebomb. Whatever they want to call it, the Old 97’s have a lot of words for love. They shared them all on Thursday night at the Fillmore in a rollicking set that spanned 27 songs and served as a defacto master class on the many strains of heartbreak.
Best described as an alt-rock country quartet, the Old 97’s separate themselves from more traditional country fare by featuring blistering solos from lead guitarist Ken Bethea and playful lyrics from singer Rhett Miller. One is as likely to hear the word “motherfucker” as they are to hear about a pick-up truck in the course of an Old 97’s song, but the odds are you’ll be too busy trying to emanate Miller’s Elvis hip swings and sweat-drenched head shakes to notice.
Miller’s charisma is unparalleled, anchored by a honeyed voice that boasts a touch of gravel but has no trouble reaching the high notes. Even his screams of “what did I expect” in “Big Brown Eyes” sound sweet. Like love itself, describing what precisely elevates a singular voice into something memorable is no easy task. There’s soul in Miller’s words, an authority in his storytelling that makes each song a chapter in the book the Old 97’s have been writing for over 20 years. He is the ringmaster to a circus of up-tempo ballads steeped in country rock. Watching him genuinely smile as he sings a pun he’s no doubt recited countless times before is proof positive that the Old 97’s are having as much fun on-stage as the crowd around them.
One unexpected highlight of the evening was the handful of songs sung by bassist Murry Hammond. His voice has a throwback bravado reminiscent of Kris Kristofferson, and the numbers he tackled played as closer to traditional country fare. The song “Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue” was especially poignant, a moody moment to punctuate an otherwise festive evening.
That the Old 97’s could have two singers with such talent is a testament to their longevity. No one is superfluous in this band. Their music travels across state lines, from the tables of smoke-filled bars to the trenches of warring lovers. There is a cohesion in their music, but it’s the variety in their songs that proves to be their greatest strength.
Go to most shows, and you may enter the venue with a wish-list of songs. Perhaps it’s a b-side; for many people they are content just to hear the singles that brought them to the concert in the first place. The setlist of an Old 97’s show is wholly irrelevant. For one, they have 10 studio albums and a slew of EPs and one-off recordings to choose from. Secondly, with the passion Miller and his bandmates afford each number, there are no let downs or forgettable moments. You’re not going to find a good moment to go pee at an Old 97’s show. From the moment they took the stage, it was musical overdrive until the last note of the fourth song of their encore. This is a band with a fierce love, however you choose to describe it.
– Sadly, the Old 97’s performance at the Fillmore marked one of the few occasions in my experience where a poster was not handed out to the exiting crowd.
– Rhett Miller’s look — a half-unbuttoned blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled-up and shoulder length chestnut hair — could best be described as Texas Jesus.
– I’ll take the Old 97’s at the Fillmore with 1500 strangers over The Killers and Foo Fighters at Pier 70 with 50,000 reasons why San Francisco is losing its luster any day of the week. Yes, I know it was for charity. Go be charitable in Silicon Valley.
1. Give It Time
3. King of All of the World
4. Brown Haired Daughter
5. W. Tx. Teardrops
9. Big Brown Eyes
11. Over the Cliff
12. Old Familiar Steam
13. Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue
14. Longer Than You've Been Alive
16. Let the Idiot Speak
17. Designs on You
18. This is the Ballad
19. White Port
20. Murder (Or a Heart Attack)
21. Barrier Reef
22. Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)
23. Most Messed Up
24. Most in the Summertime [Rhett Miller solo]
25. Valentine [Rhett Miller & Murry Hammond]
26. Let's Get Drunk & Get It On