The Old 97's Show Few Signs of Wear at Webster Hall: Concert Review

OLD 97s Performing - P 2014
Matthew Allen

OLD 97s Performing - P 2014

Entering their third decade as a band, the honky-tonk punks are as good as they ever were.

The Texas quartet offered more rollicking tales of reckless behavior from their new LP "Most Messed Up"

"We've been doing this longer than you've been alive," Rhett Miller sings at the start of the latest Old 97's album, Most Messed Up, in a song that fares better than most of those self-referential numbers cranked out by songwriters who've been at it a while. The lyric might not be an accurate reflection of the band's demographic — most in the audience at Webster Hall Tuesday night were old enough to have bought the first Old 97's record in 1994, and plenty could have gotten legally drunk while listening to it. But the allusion to their 20-plus-year history forced one to marvel at how much the present-day band still feels like the quartet of Dallas kids who brought Clash-like excitement to the quasi-genre folks were starting to call alt-country.

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Not only do they retain the energy of those early days, but their frontman appears to have a Dorian Gray-like portrait stashed in some storage locker: Wagging his hips in tight white jeans and an unbuttoned shirt, he looked nothing like a middle-aged rocker. Some would say their stage show had more charm at the outset, before Miller grew his hair out, ditched the glasses and became an unrepentant pretty boy: Miller and bassist Murry Hammond looked nerdy enough then to make the band's combustible performances shocking. But while their look has evolved, the music retains its original appeal: Having flirted now and then with less twangy pop sounds, they've settled down with what they do best. One of the evening's highlights, the new song "Give it Time," galloped forward with the same Western cadence as "Doreen," a standout on their first Bloodshot record Wreck Your Life. (A folksier version with banjo had been on their debut, Hitchhike to Rhome.)

A band that sings so much about being wasted (and the bad behavior encouraged by that condition) might be expected to deliver erratically on-stage — like, say, the Replacements, whose Tommy Stinson appears on the new album — but such is not the case here. Even at their sloppiest, with Miller wailing, "I just might get drunk tonight, burn the niteclub down" on "Niteclub," drummer Philip Peeples kept his bandmates from going off the rails. Much more often, they were rowdy in sync with each other, as on the breathless "Nashville" and the lusty "Guadalajara."

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Lead guitarist Ken Bethea, who only got into the spotlight once or twice, doesn't pose onstage as Miller and Hammond do, and may have silently snickered when, shortly after he was featured on "Let the Whiskey Take the Reins," Miller took an accidental pratfall while contorting himself limbo-style on fan favorite "Wish the Worst." "The only surprising thing," Miller said afterward, "is that doesn't happen every night."

The nearly two-hour set rarely slowed down much (though "Barrier Reef" had an obligatory feel), and in fact got more exciting near the end: Lydia Loveless, whose strong opening set recalled in-her-prime Stevie Nicks and Lone Justice-era Americana, joined the band for a rip-roaring version of "Four Leaf Clover." The night-closing "Timebomb" was appropriately explosive. And a cover of the Clash's "Career Opportunities" demonstrated that, though they're now been together more than twice as long as that band was, it's still hard to watch the Old 97's without thinking of those forever-young British punks.

Set list:

If My Heart Was a Car
Streets of Where I'm From
Dance with Me
Longer Than You've Been Alive
The EX of All You See
Bird in a Cage
Iron Road
Every Night Is Friday Night
Let the Whiskey Take the Reins
Up the Devils Pay
Wish the Worst
Give It Time
Barrier Reef
Murder or a Heart Attack
Can't Get a Line
Big Brown Eyes
Let's Get Drunk and Get It On
Four Leaf Clover|

Most Messed Up
Career Opportunities (Clash cover)