The Old 97’s are touring in celebration of the 15th anniversary of Too Far to Care, which many consider to be their best album.
Almost 20 years ago I visited my friend Sam in Dallas. He was friends with the band Killbilly and had produced two of their cds. Then four years ago rtb invited me to hear a band that she was crazy about. While listening to them I couldn’t help thinking that they reminded me a lot of Killbilly. I’d heard of the Old 97’s, and I was sure I’d like them, but I’d been avoiding listening to them because I was angry with the band. The reasons why I was angry with them were long forgotten but I decided to hold onto the anger anyway. After my review of how much I loved the Old 97’s, I got an email from Sam telling me that that wasn’t my first time – I’d seen them open for Killbilly in Dallas. Now it all made sense. I was angry because the Old 97’s were getting a lot of press and Killbilly were not. Unfortunately the only person I hurt was myself. I denied myself the pleasure of the Old 97’s for almost 20 years.
In the last four years I’ve been doing a lot of catching up. I see them every time they’re in NYC and I see Rhett Miller’s (lead singer/rhythm guitar) frequent solo shows as often as possible. Even though I didn’t own Too Far to Care I know all the songs because of how many times I’ve heard them live.
They were playing two nights in NYC. I wanted to see both but since I’m recovering from pneumonia, I decided that I’d have to do with one night. I chose the Music Hall of Williamsburg because I’d get to be up close to the stage. The negative is that it would be their second night in NYC. That’s always dangerous because the band is usually a bit hungover on day two in NYC.
Before the show I stopped in a Cuban restaurant next door. The café con leche tasted just like my mother’s. By the time rtb met up with me I was already devouring the chicken and picadillo empanadas. While I was eating, out of the kitchen came crazy Andrew from Top Chef Chicago. So now you know where he’s working.
We were first in line to get into the club and got our spot stage left. While we were waiting we heard a woman behind us say, “Rhett Miller!” and he greeted them and took them up to the green room. Rhett’s voice didn’t sound good so that did not bode well. He’d played that morning on VH1 and one of the pop-ups during his performance said that he’d fallen asleep in the taxi.
I needn’t have worried about Rhett Miller. He opened the show, and although he was a bit subdued, he gave it 110% as he always does. He included a song that had been left off of Too Far to Care and invited Heather Robb of The Spring Standards (and the woman who had greeted him earlier) to join him on stage for “Picture This” and “Fireflies.” He had a short set with only two more songs and then he encouraged us to watch Salim, who has produced some of the Old 97’s and Rhett’s cds and was a very good musician. Rhett assured us that he just wasn’t some guy invited to open for the band.
We’d seen Salim Nourallah open as an acoustic solo act for Rhett and weren’t very impressed at the time. One of the problems is that anyone pales in comparison to Rhett. Even if Rhett wasn’t so beautiful he still packs a tremendous amount of charisma and he would be the shining light in any room. This time Salim was performing with The Travoltas, who are a very good band. There was a lead guitarist with tons of effects, a very charismatic keyboard player, a drummer with an annoying light in his bass drum, electric bassist, and another guitarist. The second guitarist was talking to rtb and me before the show – commenting on us having a good spot and rtb mentioned something about him showing up with dinner. He then went through the green room door – we had no idea he was with the band. Salim sings lead and plays guitar. He has two mics – one to provide an old-fashioned sound. To me, it didn’t bring anything to the songs when he used that mic and I didn’t see any reason for it. The problem this night was the same as before. There isn’t anything really negative about Salim but there’s nothing special about him either. I did like him better with the full band. The sound is 1960s/1970s pop music, which is what you get when Salim produces Rhett’s solo work.
Now it was time for the Old 97’s. The first song on Too Far to Care is “Timebomb,” which is their closer. There’s a reason why the song is the closer – it is a difficult song to follow. In all the times I’ve seen them and seen Rhett I can only think of one time when they didn’t close with “Timebomb.” How were they going to follow this amazing rendition of “Timebomb”? The next song was “Barrier Reef” and as soon as Ken Bethea (lead guitar) played the chords I knew it was going to be okay. It’s the Old 97’s. They can play any of their songs in any order and it all works because it’s all great. Rhett had some problems with the high notes on “Broadway” but other than that his voice held up as well as it usually does. Which isn’t perfectly but good enough.
rtb had seen them the night before and when I asked the question I already knew the answer – Which was the better night? The night before had been much higher energy for both the band and the audience. I could tell. The wonder of it is that the Old 97’s at less energy is still more than 100% of most other bands.
Murry Hammond’s bass sounded so great. I remembered the first time I had heard it when I compared it to an old acoustic bass on the stage at the Ole Opry and it still sounds that way. And Philip Peeples’ drives the beat on the drums that takes the band further and further.
What an incredible night.
Rhett – solo
Rhett and Heather Robb
Rhett – solo
The Old 97’s
By Carene Lydia Lopez