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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Old 97's build up full head of steam

Cicero's Basement Bar, St. Louis, Mo., April 19, 1996

By Eric Zehnbauer

ST. LOUIS - Based on previous performance, a good show was expected from the Old 97's.

But these Texans were more impressive than ever.

For the uninitiated, the Old 97's are part of a burgeoning new genre of music, variously called alternative-country, insurgent country or grange rock. Whereas some bands playing this new, rockin' brand of country music have more recent influences, the Old 97's show a truer appreciation for some of the older, more traditional country roots. But they play it in their own, unique, high-octane style.

The best way to describe them is Hank Williams Sr. meets the Ramones.

In their Friday performance before a packed house at the cramped Basement Bar, they tore through most of the tunes on both of their CDs, the new "Wreck Your Life" and their full-length debut, "hitchhike to rhome."

Besides playing many originals, they covered gems by some of their major influences, including Johnny Cash's "Let the Train blow the Whistle" and the classic Bill Monroe bluegrass number, "Sweet Blue-Eyed Darling."

To hear lead singer Rhett Miller and bassist Murray Hammond harmonize is a real treat. Their own original numbers stand out with clever lyrics, such as the song "Victoria," wherein Miller sings about the title character, "She lost her lover to an accident at sea, she pushed him overboard and ended up with me."

Many 97's' tunes concern love gone wrong, and the trouble relationships cause. What better country music themes are there? Certainly not singing about scootin' your boots, or whatever other kind of schlock is being pushed onto the airwaves by Hot New Country radio.

The Old 97's play songs that country music is supposed to be about, albeit in a whole 'nother way.

And the crowds definitely seem to appreciate it. At every one of their performances, the crowds get bigger. This time they had two opening acts, although that proved a disappointment, as it meant they only got to play for an hour.

Opening the show was The Hellcat Trio, a band that looked like they'd play rockabilly a la the Stray Cats. They did that, but they also surprised by playing quite a few more jazz/swing influenced numbers, especially one tune where the singer broke into some impromptu scat-singing.

The second act, the Vibro Champs, was less memorable. They played journeyman rock/swing, but nothing spectacular enough to leave any kind of lasting impression.

When the house lights came on at the end of the 97's' show, the crowd at Cicero's refused to start moving towards the doors until they got at least one encore.

So Miller came out and performed a solo version of a song that's quickly becoming their trademark closer in St. Louis, "Jack the Necrophiliac," one of the funniest novelty songs heard in a long time.

The buzz in the alternative-country scene is always about who's going to be the next act to score a major label deal. No one can say that the Old 97's don't deserve it, and with luck, they'll get their shot, then their talent will carry them from there.