The Old 97′s are all about quality. They are a band in every sense of the word, with each member playing a vital role in their sound. Lead singer/guitarist Rhett Miller is a gifted lyricist who’s tales of love found, lost, and everything in between are stories to which almost anyone can relate. Bassist Murry Hammond is a great singer and songwriter in his own right, choosing subjects similar to Miller, and when the two come together and harmonize, it is a thing of beauty. Lead guitarist Ken Bethea is easily one of the most overlooked guitarists today, as his playing gives the songs their drive and many of their hooks. Lastly, drummer Philip Peeples rounds things out with his solid drumming.
Since their first album, “Hitchhike To Rhome,” came out in 1994, the Dallas based band has churned out album after album of start to finish alt-country goodness, including 1997′s “Too Far to Care,” 2001′s “Satellite Rides,” and 2008′s “Blame It On Gravity” just to name a few. When you’re a band who has been on a fifteen year win streak in terms of releasing quality albums, having a reputation as a stellar live act can only solidify your fan base and gain you new followers. The Old 97′s have never had a problem with this, as their must-see shows have been part of their appeal from the start. Their performance at Stubb’s on April 14, a benefit show for the Hill Country Conservancy and a kick off for Austin’s “Earth Week” festivities, easily proved why they are one of the best bands from Texas.
Recently converted Austinite Ben Kweller got things off to a great start by delivering an energetic and fun set with little more than just a guitar, the occasional trip to the piano, and his voice. Judging by his performance, one would never guess that he was recovering from a bad case of food poisoning. He only played two songs from his newest album, the country tinged “Changing Horses,” opting for the poppier sound of his older albums with songs like “How It Should Be (Sha Sha),” “Sundress,” and “Falling.” The much buzzed about Austin folk singer Amy Cook joined Kweller on stage for a couple songs, her sweet voice complementing him on “Lizzy.” Cook then proceeded to play a song of her own, the pleasant “Hotel Light” before Kweller took the reins again. Throughout his set, Kweller played with a sense of enthusiasm that was nothing short of infectious. He was happy to be playing, and grateful that he felt well enough to perform. His set closed with crowd favorite “Penny On A Train Track,” a great ending to a strong set.
When the Old 97′s finally took the stage, they were greeted with an almost rapturous amount of applause, a testament to their loyal and devoted fan base. From the opening notes of the excellent “Won’t Be Home,” off 2004′s “Drag It Up,” the band ripped through their 90-minute set with an energy that stayed consistent throughout. Miller sang with the same sense of urgency he does on record, the nervous/jealous tone of songs like “Dance With Me” was perfectly conveyed through his vocal performance. Bethea’s guitar sounded wiry and vital, and was played with finesse and skill, while Hammond and Peeples each turned in strong performances with their instruments. Hammond turned in several strong vocal performances too, his heartbreaking ballad “Color of A Lonely Heart Is Blue” being one of the night’s highlights. There was a lot of movement around the stage from Miller, Hammond, and Bethea, as they were into the music they were playing, and were intent on putting on a show. Few bands have the same kind of energy on stage that they do, and even fewer sound great while doing it.
The mix of songs in their set covered their entire career. Songs like “Doreen,” “Stoned” and “Over the Cliff” represented their earlier, more twangy days when country played a heavier influence in their music. Songs from “Too Far to Care,” such as “Barrier Reef,” “Just Like California,” and “Big Brown Eyes,” were played with the same intensity that marked a shift in the band to a more pop-rock oriented sound while maintaining their country earnestness and charm. This trend continued on each of their subsequent albums, and the band played many songs from them, including “Rollerskate Skinny,” “Smokers,” “No Baby I,” and “Question.” While many great songs were absent on this night, almost everyone in the crowd was singing right along to what was being played, a testament to the quality of the group’s work.
After announcing that they were going to be recording their new album in Austin, The Old 97′s finished their set, as always, with their most famous song, the barn-burning “Timebomb.” The opening notes sent the crowd into a frenzy, and everyone sang along with heart and passion. It finished the night on a high note, and marked another successful outing for the Old 97′s. While the band’s members may have reached middle age, they still have the same energy and dedication that has helped them win fans for almost 2o years. It was nothing short of awe-inspiring.