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Old 97's, Charlie Louvin live up to billing

Wilbur Theatre, Boston, October 5, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The Old 97's may be one of the grandfathers of the alternative-country movement, but they were not mired in the past in concert. While they certainly reached back into their catalogue for favorite, they also dished out songs from "Blame It On Gravity," their disc out in May. Matter of fact, they started with the lead-off track from "Gravity," The Fool, making it clear that was not going to be a tried-and-true evening.

The Old 97's could be considered a well-oiled machine, at least within alt.-country since there is a roughness to the music. After all, the quartet - lead singer Rhett Miller, bassist and sometime lead singer Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples - have been together for about 15 years, releasing their debut "Hitchhike To Rhome" in 1994 before capturing the attention of the Bloodshot label. In the intervening years, they have released a bunch of albums on a somewhat steady schedule, while also making way for other projects, particularly Miller's solo career. Hammond issued a strong CD on his own in August with proceeds going to charity.

As for the concert itself, the group was in good form mixing punky sounds, pop and, of course, country. It may have taken Miller awhile to kick in vocally - he did not seem particularly in a groove until well into the show. But once he was, the intensity level really took off. Miller delivered Rollerskate Skinny with a healthy snarl in his voice before continuing with The Easy Way. Bethea uncorked a bunch of taut, sharp guitar leads throughout the 90-minute show with Peeples steady on the drums. Hammond is not as pleasing a singer as Miller, but he more than held his own on songs like Smokers and also provided a measure of diversity in the sound.

There was no difference between old and new with The Old 97's as songs like the catchy Victoria sounding as fresh as ever. The Old 97's legacy is more of the recent variety, but in recordings and live, they are deserved accolades.

If looking to the past, the ageless Charlie Louvin preceded The Old 97's with a solid, 45-minute set. Those attending must accept his craggy voice. After all, he is 81, and there's not a lot he can do with it at this point in his career. But he was steady vocally, and he did a good job in putting the songs across.

To show just how long he's been around, Louvin along with brother Ira formed the much beloved Louvin Brothers in the 1950s and said they had Elvis Presley opening shows for them. That didn't last too long, and then the Louvins opened for Elvis.

Charlie Louvin is not sitting on his duff today either. He just released a gospel disc last month, and come December, he's releasing yet another new CD. But for now he's hitting the road, doing 150 dates this year alone, celebrating his music. His backing band, which includes his son on acoustic guitar, serviced him well, often playing honky tonk music. His guitarist was particularly good. The bottom line with Louvin was that it was exciting to see a living treasure still give a warm, winning performance.

As if to emphasize the connection between the old style of Louvin and the new of The Old 97's, Louvin sang Cash on the Barrelhead, while the 97's performed Crash on the Barrelhead. The Old 97's deserve credit for not only turning on a good set, but taking Louvin out on the road to a younger crowd, and he lived up to the billing.