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Concert review: Old 97s at The Urban Lounge

by on May 16, 2014


This might just be the booze talking, as can happen at an Old 97s gig, but as I was watching the band rumble through a fine set of songs old and new Thursday night at The Urban Lounge, I came to realize the Dallas band might be the rock ‘n’ roll version of fine ’80s flick The Outsiders.

For those who haven’t seen the movie based on S.E. Hinton’s excellent book, it’s about a group of rough-and-tumble “greasers” who band together to find a sense of family and community they don’t have at home as a means to face the challenges of life. They were popular enough with the ladies and successful in their own way, but they still found themselves on the outside of the world the rich kids in town inhabited.

In the book, it’s a vivid tale of class and misspent youth. In the movie version, the themes remain true, but the Outsiders themselves were an impossibly attractive batch of young actors in the roles of the scuffling young toughs–Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon among them. It was just a little hard to buy the idea of Tiger Beat-bait as a tough street gang.

The Old 97s are a straightforward rock band with a dash of twang straight out of Texas, but because their songs are more poppy than gritty, and because primary singer/songwriter Rhett Miller has matinee-idol looks, it seems the band doesn’t get the same kind of respect as many of their Lone Star State peers. This despite 20 years of releasing consistently good-sometimes-great albums and collaborating with real-deal icons like Merle Haggard.

As a fan, that’s a bit of a bummer, because the strength of the band’s catalog is such that the band should be much bigger stars by this point. At the same time, it sure is great to be able to see them at places the size of The Urban Lounge when they come to town. And if the band is at all disappointed in how their career has progressed, it sure doesn’t come through on stage, where they are an energetic blast of good humor, great riffs and consistently great performances from all the men in the band–Miller, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples.

Thursday night, Old 97s showcased a slew of songs from their new album Most Messed Up, a rollicking set of whiskey-soaked tunes that lent themselves easily to the live environment. And the old favorites had the crowd geeked, hoisting bottles in the air and buying rounds of shots for the band so often it inspired Hammond to ask the other guys “How hungover do you want to be at the airport in the morning?”

After opening with “If My Heart Was a Car” from their 1994 debut and “Streets Where I’m From” 1997’s Too Far To Care, the band brought the crowd into the present with the new “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” on which Miller announces how good the rock ‘n’ roll life has been to him.

From there, the band bounced back and forth between songs new and old. “Stoned” was an early highlight, and Hammond introduced his new “The Ex of All You See” by calling it his “Who song” from the new album. “Bird in a Cage” and “Niteclub” were both excellent, as was Hammond’s “Iron Road.”

Throughout, the band and crowd seemed to feed off each other’s energy, which obviously makes for a great show. Miller and Bethea made their way toward the shots offered by fans on occasional, while Hammond begged off: “That’s the old Murry.” Miller is a fine frontman, hair flying and body convulsing with his guitar playing. Bethea is calmer, but is an absolutely stellar guitarist. And Hammond evokes Paul McCartney for me with his unique bass-playing, pulling his instrument high while he plays.

Among the night’s other highlights: “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You),” “Question,” the Hammond-sung cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and the new “Wasted.” “Barrier Reef” is probably my favorite Old 97s song, and they killed it, as they are wont to do. “Champaign, Illinois,” the band’s reworking of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” was great to hear live.

All told, another fun, rollicking show from a band that’s probably rarely ever had an “off” night on stage.




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