Ken smiles and speaks! There’s your headline. Not that the Old 97’s playing three nights at the Brooklyn Bowl isn’t great. Or that each night they are performing one of their first three albums isn’t even better. But Ken Bethea (lead guitar) actually breaking out in a wide smile and telling the audience that it was weird to play all the songs from Hitchhike to Rhome in a row and that they’d only done this once before is one of those rare and unforgettable moments.
rtb and I got to the Brooklyn Bowl early enough so that we could stand right up at the stage. The Brooklyn Bowl is a wonderful venue with great sound, however, when you are leaning against the stage you are hearing more monitors than mains (and it is very LOUD up there) so that position is great for views not the best for sound. I did hear everything okay. And we discovered that at an Old 97’s show there are a lot of very friendly people near the stage. And they will all be there tonight and tomorrow, so we’ll be hanging out with them again.
For the first night we choose to stand in front of Murry Hammond (bass/vocals) so we were audience right. Coming out for the encore, Rhett Miller (lead singer/rhythm guitar) flopped on his back, rolled over, and got up on his knees right in front of me. The only thing separating us was the monitor and for a moment my heart stopped and my brain turned to mashed potatoes. Too much beauty too close to me. Can. Not. Think.
Trapper Schoepp and the Shades were the openers. Trapper is a cute kid with a good voice. He plays guitar and sings lead and his brother Tanner is on bass and sings back-up. There’s American roots music with some pop influences. “Settlin’ or Sleepin’ Around” reminded me of the Gin Blossoms. Articles compare them with Justin Townes Earle, Ha Ha Tonka, the Replacements, and Lucero, which are difficult boots to fill. I don’t think they’re there yet but this Wisconsin band is very good but they could be tighter. From what I can tell from online it looks like the rest of the band is Jon Phillip (drums), Graham Hunt (lead guitar), and Daniel McMahon (keyboards).
I got photos of the set lists for both bands and both had to leave songs off. The club becomes a dance club at the magic hour of 11pm. Unlike Webster Hall, the transition is very smooth because they don’t throw all of us out before the new group comes in. Unfortunately, two things going on the same night means shorter sets from the bands.
At the end, Phillip asked if wanted to hear a song about baseball or (something that I forgot). The crowd chose baseball so the last song was “Dear Prospect” and “Tracks” was dumped.
There is a song on Hitchhike to Rhome called “Ken’s Polka Thing” and Ken posted on Facebook asking to borrow an accordion. During the opener I noticed someone with a big bag – an accordion sized bag – going up to the green room. I had my fingers crossed. And then it was brought out the stage during the set-up for the Old 97’s. Yay!
I say this every time but what new things can I say about the Old 97’s? They are brilliant performers and musicians. Rhett is an outstanding songwriter. Ken is so fantastic on guitar – he has no peers. Murry dances with his electric bass while she pretends to be an upright on the Opry stage. And Philip Peeples is such a powerful and in the pocket drummer.
There were some problems on stage but nothing stopped the band from playing through. Murry’s bass head needed to swapped out and Rhett started to sing “Wish the Worst” after playing the intro for “Desperate Times.” There was a problem with Rhett’s acoustic guitar and he switched to electric instead of taking the other acoustic. I did think that was a mistake because the two electric guitars clashed sometimes. At the end Ken did a leap and almost fell backwards.
But the band looked happy and they just all like each other so much. Rhett kept going on about how the band is 20 years old. And then said that in 20 years he has never won an argument. They reminisced about the making of the album and how their shows then had a lot of covers because they didn’t have that many songs.
Ken was on stage alone for his song. He said he hadn’t touched an accordion in ten years until that one had been brought upstairs for him. He needn’t have worried – he sounded great.
After I had taken a photo of the set list, the guy from Buffalo standing next to me started naming the songs the band was going to play in addition to their first album. He mentioned “Big Brown Eyes” and I told him not to tell me anymore because I wanted it to be a surprise. When people in the audience started calling out “Big Brown Eyes” I knew it was coming and then Murry gave us near the stage a big thumbs up before the band played the song. Synchronicity.
The actual set list follows. I love the photo because Rhett signed and dated the set list.
By Carene Lydia Lopez