I've been an Old 97's fan since high school. Any relationship that long can get complicated. Or stale. As their discography approaches double digits, it's rarer to get that special flutter in my stomach from a perfectly placed turn-of-phrase or wily guitar riff. Unless they go completely off the wall — an all-synth '80s homage or a metal-tinged conceptual opus — nothing will ever sound as fresh as the sly, vivacious cowpunk of their debut Hitchhike to Rhome, or as enlightening as Satellite Rides' detour into slick power pop. Plus, I wouldn't really want them to change. I'm a real grownup now, and there's something to be said for consistency.
Fortunately, the latest efforts from Old 97's — last year's The Grand Theatre Volume One and the brand-new Grand Theatre Volume Two (released July 5 on New West) — offer a welcome distillation of the band's myriad charms. Most notably, these two albums are the most successful attempts yet at channeling the raucous energy of their legendary live show.
"We set up in a club in Dallas that we've played at a bunch over the years that we know pretty intimately," explains frontman Rhett Miller. "We recorded ourselves rehearsing all the songs, running through them and working them up onstage. There was something about it — it was as if we were playing in front of an audience, because we were so used to playing on that stage."
The spirit of those rehearsals comes through — especially in Miller's delivery, which has never sounded more raw or affecting. "All the vocals, with the exception of three or four songs, were the live vocals I sang as we were cutting it, which is unheard of," recalls Miller. "Not to brag about it, but no one records a vocal live anymore. Everyone records 50 takes and builds the best vocal take they can. I've done that too. There's nothing wrong with it. But there's something visceral about what's happening when you're all playing it — and most of Ken [Bethea]'s guitars were live off the floor. There's a song on Volume Two called 'The Actor,' and that take was literally the first time we played the song all the way through. We recorded it and kept everything: the guitar, the vocal, the bass. I even kept the banter from the beginning."
The process produced some real gems, from the narrative zip of "No Simple Machine" to the sultry, desperate verve of "I'm a Trainwreck" and the ramshackle energy of the aforementioned "The Actor." (It's easy to imagine crowds of adoring, inebriated fans howling the song's climactic line, "When it's over, the man will go out. He'll drink to blackout. Every night," along with a sweaty, strumming Miller.)
"We exist as a live band," says Miller. "And I've sort of figured out with our records that this is what people like about us. I like some of our [albums] that are prettier, but why try and make a pretty record all the time? I know Fight Songs was a record where I was really trying to rein everything in, and make it very studio. I was imagining making some pristine thing. This is what we're good at, why not embrace it? I love to yell. Why not yell on the fucking record?"
And yell he does, while also uncorking an onslaught of vocal charm — oscillating between casual swagger and mischievous melancholy, with an occasional valiant (and quixotic) reach for those high notes. Bass player Murray Hammond gets his turn at the mic, as well, on the spry, vintage "White Port."
So, I guess I am still excited about this band — and, after talking to Miller, it seems they're excited too. "We've hit this weird, lucky trajectory where we keep getting bigger and bigger audiences," says Miller. "And it's never been because of a hit song. We never had that thing happen — like with so many of the bands we came up with — where they had one song that broke through, became ubiquitous and then became annoying. So I think that we got lucky by not getting a hit. We always said, 'We don't care about having hits; we want to have a career.' At the time we were saying that — when I was 23 — maybe there was a level of disingenuousness about it. Maybe, at the time, I was like, 'But it wouldn't be bad!' But, thank God we didn't. Thank God it worked out like this."
For both of this weekend's shows at Mercy Lounge, local favorites Those Darlins open (at the request of Old 97's, who are big fans) along with Texas troubadour Robert Ellis, a serious trad-country talent.
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