Live: Dance With Me -- The Old 97's Rock the Meridian Once Again.

Old 97's pic #1
(l to r) Murry Hammond, Rhett Miler, Phil Peeples, & Ken Bethea.

THE MERIDIAN -- 5/30/2008: The Old 97's are easily one of my favorite bands. They sit safely within the cadre of acts in my music catalog whose albums I will buy no matter what and who I will pay to see live whenever they come even remotely close to where I live. In the past, I've been somewhat disappointed by this completist habit of mine (Pearl Jam's No Code and the Misfits' 25th Anniversary Tour come immediately to mind), but the 97's have never, ever, ever failed to rock my ass. Not on their albums, and most definitely not as a live act. They just might be the second best damn live band out there right now (Fishbone is the first, just so you know). Even when the wife (then girlfriend) and I saw Rhett Miller play a solo show opening up for Tori Amos at Radio City Music Hall a few years back, I was still electrified. And pretty much every time the Old 97's play the Meridian, they work the crowd (and themselves) up into a sweaty lather for two-plus hours. This most recent show (the band's first on the tour for Blame It On Gravity) was definitely no exception.
Local boy Hayes Carll opened up the show with his laid-back, ragged, Guy Clark-style material. Carll is a guy that I had heard a lot about but hadn't ever had the chance to see live. I'm glad I did -- the guy is the real deal, and he's good without all the flash or histrionics that makes modern "country" so damn annoying. The crowd seemed to agree; Carll already had a lot of fans in there when the show began, but by the end of the set pretty much the whole room was hootin', hollerin', and dancing their asses off. His honky-tonk rendition of the Ramones' "I Don't Want To Grow Up" also secured him numerous cool points with me. I'm definitely going to make it a point to catch Carll the next time he plays here. You should too.
About half an hour after Carll got done, the Old 97's nonchalantly took the stage, waving and smiling in response to the crowd's cheering and applause. They then proceeded to tear into a set that spanned their entire discography, from Hitchhike through Rhome all the way up to Blame It On Gravity. I'd assumed that the show would focus on mostly newer material from Gravity and Drag It Up, which would have been perfectly fine, but the entire 97's oeuvre was represented equally, from "Victoria" to "Nightclub" to "Rollerskate Skinny" to "Won't Be Home."
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Old 97's.

To be honest, there's not a setlist these guys can come up with that would bum me out, but this one was damn near perfect. The band even played a full-band vamp of "Question" while a member of the audience came up onstage to propose to his girl. While I'm not surprised this happens -- Rhett mentioned they'd done it a few times, and I even contemplated playing the song for my wife at our wedding -- this was the first time I'd ever seen it go down, and it managed to melt even my pitch-black heart. Kudos for that.
The band's live energy can't be matched and needs to be seen to be believed. As with all Old 97's shows I've been to, the band played non-stop for about two hours, then came out and did a multi-song encore. We got the rockers, the ballads, the "Rhett songs," and the "Murry songs." Speaking of Murry Hammond, by the way, my favorite moment from the show had to be when Murry came out alone with an acoustic guitar. It went like this.
Some Guy: "'Valentine,' yeah!"
Murry: "Come on, now, just because it's just me and a guitar doesn't mean I'm going to play 'Valentine.' I could surprise you."
He then went straight into 'Valentine'. Awesome.
The band definitely does not leave its fans wanting, as far as setlists go. The only thing I missed this time around was probably "Coahuila," the catchy little shuffle that lead guitarist Ken Bethea sings on Drag It Up. It's a small complaint, though.
My wife likes to joke that going to an Old 97's show isn't like seeing a rock show, it's like running a marathon...something you have to train for weeks in advance. In a way, she's right. This outfit lays it down, every time, without fail. And you damn well owe it to Rhett, Murry, Ken, and Phil to keep up. END