BERKELEY, Calif. -- At first it didn't look good for the 60 or so fans standing in a driving rain outside of the Starry Plough on Tuesday in hopes of snaring a ticket to see the Old 97's unleash a set of pounding cow-punk.
A teeming crowd had already gathered in the venue, and the bouncers looked none too anxious to bring anyone else in.
Then something wonderfully spontaneous happened.
Although some of those outside never gained entrance to the club, they all witnessed Old 97's guitarist Rhett Miller and bassist Murry Hammond emerge like knights in hooded raincoats from the quartet's van to play a couple rain-soaked songs for the soggy, luckless bunch, including "The Other Shoe," a song the band recorded last year with country legend Waylon Jennings.
"I feel bad for the fans that can't make it in. This gig came up and we love playing small places. This is basically what we play in a town in Middle America that we've never been to. It's fun for us because it balances everything out," explained Hammond in his mild Texas twang.
Fresh off a sold-out gig Saturday at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, the Lone Star State's own Old 97's packed their country-fried rock act into the cozier confines (a maximum of 101 people, if you believe the fire marshal's directive hanging on the wall) of the Irish pub. The band kicked off the set with a rollicking version of "Streets Of Where I'm From," which started the crowd on a two-hour odyssey of dancing and mouthing the song lyrics.
"The band's effect was amplified by the small size of the venue. It made their energy that much more immediate," said Jay Bonasia, 35, of San Francisco, who made his way across the Bay for the show.
Fellow Texans the Gourds warmed up the stage, drawing the greatest applause for their mandolin-driven cover of rap master Snoop Doggy Dogg's hip-hop anthem "Gin And Juice" from a crowd young enough to get it.
Backed by the orange, green and white of the Irish flag, the casually clad Old 97's romped through most of the songs off of 1997's Too Far To Care and their two previous albums, as well as dredging up and laying down gleaming versions of songs written by bluegrass and country kings Bill Monroe, Bob Wills and Merle Haggard.
Onstage, Miller, 27, assumed the bulk of the vocal duties and strummed a vicious rhythm guitar that brought no less than three strings to an early demise. Hammond lent his capable harmonies and occasionally took the singing helm, all the while thumping out booming notes on his acoustic bass. Guitarist Ken Bethea's searing leads gave the cow its punk and drummer Philip Peeple's steady, chugging beats anchored the Old 97's down.
"I'm sorry you have to hear it twice, but I promise this time it will be louder," apologized Miller before launching into "Big Brown Eyes" (RealAudio excerpt), a tune about loss, which he and Hammond had delivered acoustically outdoors earlier in the evening.
Among the foursome's eight encores was a solo effort by Miller that relied heavily on lyrical assistance from the audience, and "Iron Road," the second of two songs that the band wrote and recorded with Jennings.
The group closed the set with a thrashing version of "Four Leaf Clover" (RealAudio excerpt) minus the vocals of former X singer Exene Cervenkova, who sang on the album version of the track. [Sat., Feb. 14, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]