Friday, October 19, 2012

Rugged Chuggers Blow Through Town

Old 97's / The Travoltas / Rhett Miller
Tuesday October 16
The Pageant

It is now a trend to play an album front-to-back on a significant anniversary. In the last 30 days, at least three bands have toured through St. Louis with a classic album in tow: Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend," Smoking Popes' "Born to Quit," and now Old 97's, with a vinyl re-issue of their 1997 album "Too Far To Care."

While in theory, this approach could lead to stale setlists and a listless audience, neither of those were present Tuesday night at The Pageant, where a modest but rabid crowd devoured nearly two hours of tunes and boo'ed the house lights when they inevitably came on. The Pageant may not have been the right size for this show—attendance was slim compared to capacity—but the performance still felt intimate. Most of that has to do with the charm and swagger of one Stuart Ransom Miller II, better known as Rhett Miller, better known as lead singer of Texas band The Old 97's.

First, Rhett Miller is a handsome man—I'm just putting that out there, because we all know it's true and we're all thinking it. This fine evening found Mr. Miller pulling double duty in one night, as the release date of Miller's most recent solo album, The Dreamer, conveniently coincides with the "Too Far to Care" reissue. As lead singer and main songwriter of Old 97's, a four-piece alt country outfit known for its fiery live performances, he's a bristling country-fried crooner with punk energy to spare. As Rhett Miller, solo artist, he's a touch more sensitive and vulnerable. But such a balancing act can take its toll, as was evidenced by his gasping, howling closer at the end of a marathon set .

Miller's solo set was very short at a mere 25 minutes, but it was enough to display a side of Miller the Old 97's crowd may not have been as familiar with. St. Louis singer-songwriter Amy K. joined Miller for a duet on "Firefly," and  she nearly stole the show. After the song, as Miller tore into set finale "The Wreck of the Old 97," she was visible on the side of the stage, taking pictures likely eliciting jealous rage in the ladies in attendance. 

"Too Far to Care" is the Old 97's third record, and it's the Mos Eisley of alt-country albums. It's a honky-tonk filled with meth-addled losers, love-sick junkies and all manner of downer characters, strung out on pills or booze and looking for love in all the wrong places. Opener "Timebomb" sets the tone for both the album and the live set: classic country turned fierce by playing heavier and faster and turning up some pedals. This is a band that clearly loves to tour. Murry Hammond, bassist extraordinaire, holds down the thumping oomph of an upright bass with aplomb and lends occasional vocals, as on "W. Texas Teardrops." Rhett Miller is a whirlwind of energy, sweating and spitting and stomping and strumming like his life depends on it. Ken Bethea is the ace in the hole, tearing country and punk a new one with fierce electric leads that have become the Old 97's stock in trade. The coal-fired engine behind the kit is drummer Philip Peeples, whose chugging thud of percussion keeps the songs on their tracks, if only just. 

The setlist was long: all fifteen tracks of "Too Far to Care," plus an additional twelve songs of material from their other albums, and a three-song encore on top of that (for those playing along at home that's 30 songs.) Such a massive set, one would imagine, would include some slower songs or duds. Not so in this case. Even when the set slowed just enough to nail the Merle Haggard gem "Mama Tried," and the marriage-proposal anthem "Question," it felt less like the train was losing speed and more like it was rounding a bend to rev back up on the straightaway. 

Such a tight and well-structured set didn't leave much room for banter, but what there was came off funny and touching. Like any savvy leading man, Miller knew to wish the Cardinals luck, though he added that, as a Texan, his heart lies with the Rangers, and promptly launched into "A State of Texas." He also took a moment before "Nightclub" to reminisce about the old Cicero's, where the band recorded a live set way back in '96. "I still have this scar on my head," he said wryly, recalling the notoriously low ceilings of Cicero's old location.

"Too Far to Care" may've debuted in the head-cracking basements of America, but the Old 97's are able to celebrate its anniversary at the Pageant: seems like this train's tracks are still headed in the right direction.

by Jason Robinson

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