Old 97's at Fitzgerald's, 5/27/2014
In band years, the Old 97's have now reached what you might call their Tattoo You period, settling into a solid signature sound while fighting off early-middle-age complacency and retaining the ability to surprise people a little. But if comparing them to the Greatest Rock & Roll Band In the World seems preposterous, just narrow the focus a little. If a better, more consistent rock and roll band has come out of Texas since the early '90s, they must have escaped me. The 97's just keep shoveling coal into the furnace.
It's hard to beat catching a band on the right night at the right venue with the right set list. The Dallas quartet's return to Fitzgerald's after a long absence Tuesday put the band right on top of the packed-out crowd, restoring the immediacy that gets lost in stuffier environments like House of Blues. Clocking in at 24 songs and 90 minutes on the nose (minus an encore that included a blistering take on the Clash's "Career Opportunities"), the set was just long enough for front man Rhett Miller to sweat through his shirt several times over.
Fitz seemed to stir up some fond memories for the well-rested group -- it was opening night of the second leg of their tour behind new album Most Messed Up -- as Miller dedicated "Niteclub" to the venue, and mentioned it was also the site of the last onstage marriage proposal by a fan by way of introducing "Question." As with "Salome" and "Big Brown Eyes" later on, the sound of female voices singing along during that tune almost matched the volume being generated onstage. One woman down front kept her smartphone trained either on the band or her male companion next to her the entire show (unless she was just shooting bassist Murry Hammond on stage right), and did not miss a single word.
That left long stretches of the show for the dudes to sink their teeth into; or rather wag their heads back and forth and throw up a fist every power chord or two. With a full two dozen songs, we got just about every variation of the band's steel-belted roots-rock imaginable: shades of Elvis Costello and Cheap Trick's power-pop on "Can't Get a Line" and "Guadalajara"; neo-outlaw Waylon Jennings collaboration "Iron Road" (talk about one from the vaults); the stompy faux-stadium rock of "Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)"; the tremendous "Brown Sugar"-like riff that announced "Barrier Reef" and kicked the show into another gear exactly one hour in; and all the way back to their most countrified rockers like "Goin', Goin', Gone" and "Stoned."
But with a full one-third of the set devoted to Messed Up, the 97's are not going to be accused of being a nostalgia act anytime soon. The new songs they trotted out Monday not only held up among so many fan favorites, they might have surpassed them. They've still got plenty of rockabilly diesel fuel, and are still finding clever ways to call out the woman who done them wrong ("Give It Time"). They're a band that's grown a little cynical, maybe ("Nashville"), but they're also content with their station in life ("Longer Than You've Been Alive").
The only thing missing (besides opener Lydia Loveless coming out to duet on "Four Leaf Clover") was a new "Question"-style cuddler, but in its place were the wicked divorce skewer "The Ex of All You See" and the Crackeresque "Let's Get Drunk and Get It On," which was perfectly placed three songs from the end to milk the crowd's Lone Star-inflamed libidos to maximum effect.
That's a forgivable sin if there ever was one. The 97's have always come off onstage as four affable guys who may sweat a lot, but don't sweat the small stuff. But they can be cocky too. When you can rock this convincingly after ten albums and almost 25 years, you've earned the right to strut a little. Mick and Keith would understand.
Review continues on the next page.