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The Old 97’s, Majestic Theater, Dallas, Texas, Saturday, 13 December, 2014 Reviewed

Darkness On the Edge of the Majestic: Beth And Steve Crawford Meet Rhett Miller

Darkness On the Edge of the Majestic: Beth And Steve Crawford Meet Rhett Miller

It’s been a year of reflection for the Old 97’s. They kicked off one of the best albums of 2014 with “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” a look at two plus decades of life in a touring rock ‘n’ roll band. They are now touring to support a reissued version of their first album, 1994’s Hitchhike to Rhome. For this Dallas show, the first set concentrated on the band’s earliest music, it was a reflection of a talented young group’s ambition. The second set was an overview of some of their best material; it was a representation of a mature band’s accomplishments.

With the exception of lead singer Rhett Miller, the talented songwriter who is the difference between being a Dallas bar band and a national act, the Old 97’s are a blue-collar band. They won’t wow you with their chops, although drummer Philip Peeeples’ intensity is remarkable. However, they are all locked in like a well-oiled machine. This was a homecoming show, booked by onetime manager Mike Schwedler who now runs the Majestic, and with many of the band’s old friends in the venue, including the woman named “Doreen” that inspired the frustrated love song of the same name. I met Rhett before the concert and saw him interact with some fans outside the venue – he comes across as an unassuming, sweet guy with a disposition of a man much younger than the mid-40s that he is. Onstage, the line between affectation and legitimate enthusiasm can be hard to discern, but he was working very hard and enjoying himself. The nearly sold out crowd seemed to sing every word of every sing. This was an audience he had built and he had every right to savor the moment.

The first set was a track-by-track performance of the Hitchhike to Rhome album. This was a look back at the band as young pups – completely invested in their dreams, filled with hope, too much in a niche to conquer the world, too talented to ignore. There are hints of artifice in the record, covers of Bob Wills’ “Miss Molly” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” sound reverent but still have a touch of too hip irony. However, “Wish the Worst” now sounds like a lost honky tonk heartbreak classic, especially performed live. “St. Ignatious” and “Stoned” sounded as vital as the band’s best material.

The second set was a “Greatest Hits” overview, although why they never play “Oppenheimer” remains a mystery to me. They bashed out their cowpunk anthems like “A State of Texas,” then calmed down the crowd with the solo acoustic “Question” – a poignant look at romance. The only real miss all night was the wobbly eggnog version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Miller emotes much more dramatically onstage than on record, giving crowd sing alongs like “Big Brown Eyes” a teen angst every syllable matters performance that wrings all possible emotion out of the material.

The night ended with two songs about what a hopeless screw up and loser Miller is, although certainly nobody believes that, least of all himself. With Ken Bethea’s punk influenced guitar playing, the Old 97’s sound like a West Texas version of the Ramones being recorded by Sam Phillips. This was a night of summation, of triumph, of lessons perfected after endless years of road testing. In 2014, it appears that the Old 97’s are commercially and artistically exactly where they want to be. I hope to see their four decade victory lap in 2034 and I hope a 64 year old Rhett Miller is still shaking his ass and jumping off of risers.

Grade – A

Setlist:

First Set:
St. Ignatious
504
Drowning in the Days
Miss Molly
Dancing with Tears
4 Leaf Clover
Wish the Worst
Old 97’s Theme
Doreen
Hands Off
Mama Tried
Stoned
If My Heart Was a Car
Desperate Times
Ken’s Polka Thing
Tupelo County Jail

Second Set:
Longer Than You’ve Been Alive
Indefinitely
West Texas Teardrops
Jagged
Let’s Get Drunk and Get it On
A State of Texas
Question
I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Barrier Reef
Can’t Get a Line
Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)
Big Brown Eyes
Melt Show

Encore:
Holly Jolly Christmas
Nashville
Time Bomb

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