CHICAGO -- By the time lead guitarist Ken Bethea launched into
the hot-rod riffs of "504," the second song of the Old 97's set, lead
singer/songwriter Rhett Miller's shirt was already soaked with sweat.
And that wasn't the only bodily fluid Miller left onstage here Saturday
Strumming his Guild acoustic so furiously that he tore a fingernail
clean off, the singer bled all over his hand, his guitar and his shirt.
But that didn't keep him from indulging in his share of windmill strums,
much to the delight of the audience.
Punk-style passion imbued every minute of the Old 97's show at the Double
Door nightclub. The Dallas, Texas-based quartet charged through 20 songs
in under an hour and a half in front of an ecstatic crowd.
Judging by the reaction to the band's new material, Old 97's are on the
right track with Fight Songs -- their fourth album, due April 27.
Since signing with Elektra in 1996, Old 97's have been tagged as a band
that could bring alternative-country into the mainstream.
But the new album sounds considerably more alternative than country.
"I think this record is really different, though that wasn't intentional,"
Miller said before the show. "In fact, I went through about a month of
being scared to death of what people were going to think."
The burden of those expectations seems to have weighed heavily on the
band. That may be the reason why Old 97's are tweaking their sound.
"Maybe we're just sick to death of alt-country," Miller said. "Maybe
we're sick of always going out on tour and every night hearing bands
that just sound like Merle Haggard."
That said, the Old 97's still base most of their songs on a shuffling
two-step beat, cover bluegrass legend Bill Monroe in concert ("My Sweet
Blue-Eyed Darlin' ") and get kicks by poking fun at country standards
(such as on the new album's "Crash on the Barrelhead").
Rather than genuflect before the late country-rock avatar Gram Parsons
like some of their brethren, the Old 97's seem to channel classic rock
'n' rollers Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis through punk-rockers such
as the Vibrators and Buzzcocks.
But loyal Old 97's fans can breathe easy knowing the band hasn't greatly
altered a winning formula. Like the previous Old 97's albums, Fight
Songs is an irresistibly energetic record with heart, soul and brains
"Murder (or a Heart Attack)," the first single from the album, was
particularly well received at the Double Door. So were the instantly
hummable "Jagged," the south-of-the-border-styled "What We Talk About"
and "19," a radio-ready pop delight with bombastic hooks worthy of Cheap Trick.
The Old 97's are a tight ensemble, tested by years on the road. Besides
Bethea and the always-mugging frontman Miller, the band includes bassist
Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples. Together, Hammond and Peeples
hammer out a bedrock low end while Hammond brackets Miller's lead vocals
with cooing high harmonies.
During the concert, the band seemed at its best when the tempo was cranked
past double time and Miller's vocals tangled with Bethea's lead licks -- as
(RealAudio excerpt) and "Victoria."
But if those songs had been pedal-to-the-metal, the set-closing "Doreen"
(RealAudio excerpt) stomped the accelerator right through the floor. It's
a wonder the Old 97's had anything left for an encore. But they did,
including a thrashing version of "Timebomb," from 1997's Too Far To
Care. The crowd stomped and shouted along.