For me, well-crafted songwriting trumps instrumental acuity every day. Luckily, the Old 97’s have got both, along with the cameraderie and devoted fan base borne of seventeen years of touring. They took the stage, already sweat-soaked before they began, on a hot June night in Tucson, delivering to 300 assembled fans a combustible set with commitment, passion and swagger. And asses were kicked.
The writing chops were apparent from the opener “Grand Theatre,” to new song “Brown-Haired Daughter” to fan favorites like “King of All the World” and “Big Brown Eyes.” Frontman Rhett Miller dedicated “Weightless” to a bartender down the street who he had seen pummeling an unruly patron. “It felt like I was in the old west!” he marvelled, adding, “This is a song about nonviolence.” Bassist Murry Hammond contributed lead vocals to four of his own songs, including “West Texas Teardrops” and “Crash on the Barrelhead.”
But the instrumental acuity was no less apparent, not least because of the impossible velocity of much of the set. For the first several numbers, it seemed like Miller and lead guitarist Ken Bethea were both playing lockstep rhythm guitar, with the latter eschewing solos for a propulsive drive. This freed Hammond to add deft, intricate flavor to his basslines. Once Bethea started spitting out leads, though, they were jaw-dropping in their dexterity, combining melodic heft with the banjo-like strumming of his rhythm work, and keeping pace with drummer Phil Peeples’ breakneck snare.
The quartet, Texans all, formed in Dallas in 1994, and was swiftly identified as a keystone of the alt.country movement, drawing comparisons to Whiskeytown, Tupelo, Jayhawks, et al. They say they’re happy to be “lumped in” with that musical community – and they can toss off a Merle Haggard cover as well as any Texas bar band – but as Miller also points out, “When you get down to it, we have been influenced longer by British Invasion music than by country music.”
And that shows, in the giddy pop-rock craft of songs like “Oppenheimer,” as well as in highlights from Miller’s solo work like the 2002 single “Our Love.” But the cowpunk roar of set-closers like “Doreen” and “Rollerskate Skinny” shows the other foot planted firmly in their rootsy home turf. Miller delivered a too-brief acoustic sample from his solo catalogue (“Come Around”) for a first encore, followed by an acoustic duo with with bassist Hammond (who sang “Valentine”), before stomping the show to a full-band close.
“This is a song we co-wrote with a guy called Bob Dylan!” shouted Miller as an intro to “Champaign, Illinois.” According to Hammond, Miller wrote the lyrics in 1995, but only recently did they develop a connection to someone who could approach Dylan for permission to publish. Dylan, who has borrowed a few melodies himself in his time, gave his blessing. If you knew the story, you could hear the melody to “Desolation Row” in there, but speeded up and propelled by the band’s muscular rhythms, it took on a life of its own.
Fellow Texan Sarah Jaffe opened with a well-received neo-folk set suffused with warmth and serenity. She took the stage with a stirring acapella workout backed only by a laptop. Joined by a quartet, Jaffe occasionally traded her acoustic guitar for bassist Miranda’s Brown gigantic axe, and charmed the crowd with her self-effacing manner and comfortable sonics.