Saturday, February 23, 2013

Performance Review - Old 97s

On Friday, February 8, 2013, Old 97s played the Vinyl Music Hall in Pensacola, FL…and I was there.

Of course you guys knew about this from a previous post (two weeks ago!!). And I’m happy to say that we only broke one rule, simply because the iPod was on shuffle and a couple of tracks came up (that they didn’t even play).

As for the show itself, in short – what a heart stopper. We were there in plenty of time to hang out and get our bearings, and learned that a Mardi Gras parade was to be going on right by the venue. Oh boy. But that worked out, we got a great (and free) parking spot, did some antiquing, had some crazy good pizza (Hopjacks, baby!) and in some semblance of a line, tickets in hand, started chatting it up with several super nice locals who became our BFFs for the duration of the show.

The Vinyl Music Hall is right on the corner of E Garden and Palafox, down from the wharf in the heart of P’cola. It’s a great little place and the perfect size to see a band along the caliber of Old 97s.

As mentioned previously, Rhett Miller opened the night with a brief but rousing acoustic set, of which I scored a signed copy, which was made up of mostly covers and obscure tracks, including California Stars by Billy Bragg and Wilco, from their first Woodie Guthrie tribute album, and closing with a blistering version of Wreck of the Old 97. Afterward, I told a few of our new besties who’d never seen them live, “It’s on after this.”

Texas duo The Os took the stage next…one guy on guitar, kick drum and vocals, and another on banjo, lap steel, harmonica, kick tambourine and vocals. Both of them told jokes. Their take on Texas Americana was a spirited hoot and holler, and when they referred to (the late, great) Townes Van Zandt as a “local artist” before launching into a truly haunting version of Waiting Around to Die, I was thoroughly won over.


But nothing could really prepare me for what was to come next. Again, we’ve seen Old 97s several times over the years, beginning all the way back in 1999 when they were still 20 somethings and staring with half-stunned eyes at a sea of Ryman Auditorium faces as an opening slot for Chris Isaak. We were fans from that moment on, and 14 years later the boys are playing their hearts out as if still trying to win over a blank-faced crowd at the Mecca of country music.

Starting the set with a front to back run through of Too Far to Care was nothing short of revolutionary, with Rhett singing to capacity as if the lives of his grand children depended on it, and the rest of the guys propelling him along with the fury of a freight train bound for hell. Many of our crowd mates proved to be uber fans, singing and dancing and yelling out requests, which made me completely lose my own cool cat reserve and decorum, and for the next 90+ minutes I was a rabid 25 year old going nuts all over again.

After a frenzied take of (album closer) Four Leaf Clover, they launched undaunted into a second set that lifted from every album but Fight Songs (my only complaint…and despite me screaming “Jagged!!!” until I was coughing), and included two Murry standouts (both decided there on stage), Can’t Get a Line and Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue.

A brief break brought them out for an encore that included their “we can’t get out of here without playing this” take on Mama Tried and a crowd-rousing, sing-your-heart-out version of Roller Skate Skinny (my favorite from Satellite Rides for the Salinger reference alone) and then closed, for whatever reason, with another take on Too Far to Care album opener, Time Bomb. Because I had already checked out recent sets, I was prepared for this and even mentioned it to some of my show mates. We all shrugged as to why, and it hardly mattered two seconds in as we all exploded again into our personal song and dance routines. Honestly, it felt like a fitting way to round out a night that celebrated the reason they had made it so far and for so long, and if they were happy to play it a second time, we were of course thrilled to oblige.

What really struck me about the band is that they just seemed ecstatic to still be playing to any sort of willing audience nearly 20 years down the line, and so they gave it their all, even though they were preaching to a ¾ roomful of the converted.

Such was the Old 97s’ power, that a 40 something couple (they knew every word of both old and new tunes) who brought in their 13ish daughter and two of her friends, found that two of them had fought their way to the front rail and were staring mesmerized by the pure (alt-country) rock being delivered directly in their faces. And of course Rhett is still a cutie-pie, so that helps. 

The show ended at midnight and we were halfway home before the buzz wore off enough for fatigue to start kicking in. We remedied that by putting on Fight Songs and singing along with our voices cracked and worn. Twelve hours later, I still couldn’t hear a blasted things, but after a performance like that, I never really need to again.

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