Let me state at the outset that if I ever decide to spend big money so I can "watch" a concert a quarter-mile from the stage in some mammoth amphitheater or hockey arena, somebody slap me silly and remind me why I go see live music in the first place. There’s absolutely no substitute for a couple hundred people crammed shoulder to shoulder in some little dive bar. That's what I got last night at Cleveland's Grog Shop. It's probably a heterodox view, but I'm convinced that there will be a little corner of heaven (or perhaps purgatory) where some sweaty band will be laying it all on the line while the saints deal with sticky, beer-sloshed floors and secondhand smoke thick as incense. And God will say, “It is Good.”
It does help, though, to have a sweaty band laying it all on the line, and the Old 97's qualified on all counts. They played a 30-song, two-hour set that was light on Fight Songs material (the weak link in the catalogue, IMO), covered just a couple songs from Hitchhike to Rhome and Wreck Your Life, plundered most of the songs with the big hooks from Satellite Rides, offered a couple Rhett solo numbers from his album The Instigator," and reprised almost the entirety of Too Far to Care.
That ratio was just about perfect. They also threw in a half-dozen new songs from a yet-to-be recorded album. According to Rhett and bassist Murry Hammond, the band’s heading to a studio in upstate New York in three weeks to record the long-overdue follow-up to Satellite Rides.
The lowlights: One of the new songs, which featured Ken Bethea, a fine guitarist, on vocals for the first time ever. Ken is a fine guitarist.
The highlights: Almost everything else. Murry is an underrated singer and songwriter, and he handled the lead vocals duties on a half-dozen of the songs. "West Texas Teardrops" and "Up the Devil's Pay" were particularly strong. But Murry's second fiddle in this band and he knows it. The main reason to see the Old 97's is, of course, is Rhett Miller—alt.country/indie heartthrob, manic performer, and resident smartass—and Rhett did not disappoint. Nobody plays with and re-invents clichés the way Rhett Miller does, and he continually amazes me with his ability to turn a phrase you think you've heard a million times, but haven't. He can take the hoariest of sad-sack sentiments and make them sound fresh and timeless:
I got a four leaf clover. /
It ain't done one single lick of good /
I'm still a drunk and I'm still a loser /
I'm living in a lousy neighborhood
When I first met Doreen /
She was barely seventeen. /
She was drinking whiskey sours in the bar. /
The way she tossed 'em back /
I would've had a heart attack. /
But as it is I let her drive my car.
We heard those two last night. But he can also concoct poetic jumbles that belie his roots as a Creative Writing major at Sarah Lawrence College:
Richard Wagner's letters to his lover Mathilde were a mess /
He should have quit before he had written the address /
They made love on the mezzanine her husband was his friend /
Vienna in a fugue-state working on a thing /
That when he finished it took almost seven hours to sing /
He still found time to write to her his heart-exploding words /
Our love surpassed our love so fast /
Our love's all wrong our love goes on and on /
Our love became our love by name when I wrote it to you in a song /
Our love goes on and on /
Our love our love
What carries it, of course, is the sound, and these four guys, even after a lengthy hiatus, still sounded tight, whipping up a sonic blast that was equal parts Sun-Records rockabilly and British-Invasion jangle. Their pop sensibilities are impeccable.
"Big Brown Eyes," "Barrier Reef," and "Timebomb" were the final three songs of the night, arguably the three best songs from the Old 97's best album, Too Far to Care. It's hard to do better than that. "Barrier Reef" found the crowd singing along and pogo-ing for all they were worth (you move vertically when you're caught in the crush and can't move horizontally; at least that's my theory for those, like myself, who can't dance, and I'm stickin' with it). This song may feature the greatest non sequitur ever:
The Empty Bottle was half empty /
Tide was low, and I was thirsty. /
Saw her sitting at the bar /
You know how some girls are, /
Always making eyes /
Well she wasn't making eyes. /
So I sidled up beside her, /
Settled down and shouted, "Hi there." /
"My name's Stewart Ransom Miller, /
I'm a serial lady-killer." /
She said, "I'm already dead." /
That's exactly what she said.
So we tripped the lights fantastic /
We was both made of elastic. /
Midnight came and midnight went /
And I thought I was the President. /
She said, "Do you have a car?" /
And I said, "Do I have a car?"
What's so great about the Barrier Reef? /
What's so fine about art? /
What's so good about a Good Times Van, /
When you're working on a broken, /
Working on a broken, /
Working on a broken man?
Then "Timebomb" detonated as it always does, a pure shot of rock 'n roll adrenaline, and a happy, sweaty crowd drifted out into the Cleveland cold.
For what it's worth, I sang along to just about every song. Rhett's probably not crazy about sharing lead vocal duties, but since everybody else seemed to be doing it, I didn't feel so bad.