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(Above: The Old 97s road-test the new song “Every Night Is Friday Night Without You.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The 16-year history of the Texas-born Old 97s follows a trajectory well worn by other bands: start out with plenty of youthful energy and fire in the belly and gradually grow more mellow and/or pop-oriented. For theirThursday night’s performance at Crossroads, the alto-country quartet shrugged off its pop trappings and attacked their material with vibrant intensity.

The first sign of the evening’s energy came on the second song, “Dance With Me.” Recorded as a pop song for their latest album, 2008’s “Blame It On Gravity,” guitarist Ken Bethea tore into the main riff like a buzz saw, pushing the tempo to nearly double its original speed. When bass player Murry Hammond was given the mic shortly thereafter for a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” the band pushed and prodded the laid-back vocalist.

Flanked by Bethea and Hammond in nearly matching red plaid shirts, photogenic singer/front man Rhett Millershook his hips like Elvis behind his Stratocaster. He yelped, yowled and screamed his way through the 90 minute set list that featured as many cuts from their first album – four- as their latest.

The band’s third album, “Too Far To Care,” is widely considered its best. They treated the crowd to six cuts, or nearly half the album and they consistently received the biggest responses of the night. “Big Brown Eyes” and “Barrier Reef” got everyone dancing and Miller took an audience request of “Niteclub” during the encore.

Miller seemed to enjoy playing the scorned lover and dumping extra venom into likes like “I hope you crash your momma’s car” and “Thought so much about suicide/parts of me have already died” on back-to-back trips down lonely street during “Lonely Holiday” and “Wish the Worst.” A couple songs later, on “Melt Show,” he emphatically kicked the air during the chorus.

Bethea spurred Miller’s energy, leaping into the air at the start of “The Fool,” dropping a Dick Dale-style guitar solo into “Smokers,” another Hammond vocal showcase,” and adding a nice countermelody to the most delicate and upbeat song in their catalog, “Question.” His solo leading into “Timebomb,” the traditional closer, turned the already fast number into something like a punk song.

Drummer Philip Peeples was the brick on the accelerator that never let up. His cadences consistently pushed the band harder and faster. His kit was at the center of “Every Friday Night Is Lonely Without You,” a staccato-riffed song from the band’s upcoming fall album. It was the only song the half-capacity crowd didn’t sing or air guitar along to all night, but embraced just the same. Peeples also took nice mini-solos during “Doreen” and “Early Morning.”

Lucero rock the Bottleneck in 2008.

The drum solo after “Early Morning” led into a reading of R.E.M.’s “Driver 8,” one of covers the band cut for its new “Mimeograph” EP. The arrangement hewed closely to the original, but it was interesting to hear the lyrics through Miller’s enunciation.

Normally the more rambunctious of the two bands, Lucero was more subdued that night. Singer Ben Nichols embraced the band’s mellow side with numbers like the gospel piano ballad “Goodbye Again,” “Kiss the Bottle” and the one-two of “Hey Darlin’ Do You Gamble?” and “Nobody’s Darlings.”

The five-piece band displayed its Memphis roots by adding a two-piece horn section for a set that featured several cuts from last year’s album “1372 Overton Park.” Early in the set the horns competed with the pedal steel in the mix, but they soon settled in adding extra punch and depth. The brass gave “That Much Further To Go” and “Sixes and Sevens” an E Street sound.

Lucero’s 65-minute set ended with nearly everyone taking a solo during the joyous “All Sewn Up.”

Old 97s setlist: Streets of Where I’m From; Dance With Me; Won’t Be Home; Mama Tried (Merle Haggard cover); Lonely Holiday; Wish the Worst; The Fool; Smokers; Melt Show; Question; Stoned; Up the Devil’s Pay; Barrier Reef; Driver 8 (REM cover); Early Morning; Can’t Get A Line; Big Brown Eyes; Doreen. Encore:Every Night Is Friday Night Without You; Niteclub; The Easy Way; Timebomb.

Keep reading:

Review: Old 97s (2008)

Review: Cross Canadian Ragweed (with Lucero)

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

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Above: Watching the Dirtbombs rip through “Ever Lovin’ Man” at The Bottleneck was one of the Top 10 shows of the year.

By Joel Francis

(Note: All concerts in Kansas City, Mo., unless otherwise stated.)

10. Dirtbombs, The Bottleneck, Lawrence, Kan., May 25
The Dirtbombs didn’t get started until midnight, but no one seemed to mind. With barely three dozen fans in the club, just showing up was a sign of devotion.  For the next hour, singer/guitarist Mick Collins and his band plowed through solid cuts like “Ever Lovin’ Man” off their latest album, “We Have You Surrounded,” and soul covers like Sly and the Family Stone’s “Underdog” from their classic album, “Ultraglide in Black.” Collins hails from the Motor City and he embraces its every aspects, combining the soul of Motown with the soiled fuzz of the White Stripes and Stooges.

9. Carbon/Silicon, Record Bar, March 29
It isn’t often a member of the Clash comes to town, and even more rare they’d play a 200-person room like The Record Bar. With barely a nod to his old band, guitarist/songwriter/singer Mick Jones displayed the chops and charm that made him a legend. Read the full review.

8. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Qwest Center, Omaha, March 14
Bruce Springsteen closed his “Magic” tour with a three-hour performance at the Sprint Center. I didn’t make that one, but I did see his warm-up gig a few months earlier in Omaha. Springsteen and company treated the crowd to most of his latest album and liberally sprinkled classics like “Jungleland,” “She’s the One” “Thunder Road,” which featured a guest appearance from hometown boy Conor Oberst. Read the full review.

7. Rhett Miller, Largo, Los Angeles, April 11
The Old 97s had barely reconvened when Rhett Miller struck out alone for two nights on the tiny stage at Largo, Los Angeles’ legendary artist-friendly club. He dusted off several 97s favorites and debuted songs from the group’s upcoming album “Blame It On Gravity.” Miller also tromped through his solo catalog and treated the intimate crowd to his favorite covers. The appearance of pianist Jon Brion midway through the set was the cherry on the sundae. The two musicians renewed their musical friendship through songs like David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and Wilco’s “California Stars” that had the pair grinning like schoolboys. Miller announced he was recording the show for future release. Keep your fingers crossed this pops up.

6. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Granada Theater, Lawrence, Kan., Jan. 29
It was after 11 p.m. on an icy winter night when the Dap-Kings took the stage. Within minutes it felt like a hot 1966 summer afternoon. Clad in matching suits, their three-piece horn section complementing the three-piece rhythm section, the Dap-Kings – go-to performers for everyone from Amy Winehouse to Seattle’s Saturday Knights – settled into a solid soul groove. Moments later, the diminutive Sharon Jones skittered across the stage as if she were shot from a cannon. Like a perfect hybrid of James Brown and Tina Turner, Jones partied through songs from her three albums and taught the crowd a few new dance moves. The heat from the band must have pushed the overall mercury up, because when it was all over outside didn’t feel as cold.

5. Randy Newman, Folly Theater, Oct. 11
Randy Newman found a break from his day job scoring movies to make a quick run to the heartland and give his first Missouri show in a generation. Working primarily from this year’s “Harps and Angels” album, Newman’s solo set was stocked with more than two dozen catalog favorites peppered with hilarious asides, all performed in front of a sold-out, appreciative audience. Read the full review.

4. Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Starlight Theater, Sept. 23
Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones may be beating down Robert Plant’s door to reconvene Led Zeppelin, but Plant would be better served sticking with Alison Krauss. With a muse mightier than his former bandmates can imagine, Plant and Krauss delivered two hours of spellbinding music with arguably the greatest backing band of all time. Read the full review.

3. Dave Brubeck, Folly Theater, Oct. 2
Dave Brubeck quit touring Europe a few years ago, so the 88-year-old jazz pianist’s occasional treks to Kansas City are even more prized. Most people know Brubeck from his groundbreaking quartet with Paul Desmond, but his new group is arguably as good. Randy Jones did more with the nine pieces in his drum kit than most drummers can do with triple the amount, while saxophone player Bobby Militello applied sheets of sound and originality to Desmond’s well-worn and much-beloved “Take Five.” The quartet encored with a brief, smirking reading of Braham’s “Lullabye.”

2. Radiohead, Verizon Wireless (formerly Riverfront) Ampitheater, St. Louis, May 14
Radiohead’s last concert in the area was on the “Hail To the Thief” tour and I have been kicking myself for five years for missing them. No longer. The band’s set burned with the intensity of a supernova, climaxing with “Fake Plastic Trees.” Early detours through the “Idiotheque” and all of “In Rainbows” made the evening both invigorating and draining – and just enough to hold me over until the next tour. Read the full review.

1. Tom Waits, Fox Theater, St. Louis, June 26
Hipsters, hippies, bikers and beatniks alike populated the sold-out congregation for Tom Waits first visit to St. Louis in a generation. He made it a night to remember, performing rarities like “Heigh Ho!” (for the only time on the tour), old favorites like “Rain Dogs” and new gems like “Day After Tomorrow.” Oh yeah, and advice on how to bid on eBay. Read the full review.

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Above: Of course they played “Roller Skate Skinny.”

By Joel Francis

There is something to be said for a band who can play an entire set without changing instruments.

The Old 97s are not quite that band – lead singer/songwriter/heartthrob Rhett Miller swapped his electric axe for an acoustic one a few times – but they are as close as we’re going to get. For almost two hours they entertained a nearly full Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan. with little more than the instruments and songs on their backs.

The setlist encompassed more than two dozen songs, from radio favorites like “New Kid” to fan favorites like “Jagged” and new songs like “No Baby I.” When the band played “Question,” a recount of Miller’s wedding proposal, all the women pulled their men close and sang softly in their ears. “Barrier Reef” erupted into a raucous sing-along.

In a rare moment of between-song banter, Miller recalled the band’s first show in Lawrence at the Replay Lounge where they performed for a night of unlimited, free video games. A few songs later, those days were celebrated in “Niteclub.”

Miller may have the easiest job in showbiz. Offstage, all he has to do is write songs that combine the alt-country terrain plowed by Uncle Tupelo with the pop sensibility of Paul McCartney. Onstage, he just makes love with his eyes to all the doe-eyed women pressed against the stage and occasionally shake his ass while Ken Bethea takes a guitar solo.

Bethea plays lead guitar via chainsaw. Standing on the edge of the stage with his headstock hanging over the crowd, he rips through songs with a Chet Atkins-meets-Dick Dale style. On the other extreme of the stage, modest Murry Hammond cradles his bass like a baby and tosses out the harmony (and intermittent lead) vocals that push the songs from good to great.

Late-tour shows can be a mixed bag. When Wilco played the Uptown Theater in 2006 at the end of the Kicking Television tour they were tired of both the road and their material. But with only a couple dates left on their current tour the Old 97s played with the perfect mix of familiarity and abandon. “Doreen,” one of their hardest-rocking numbers, positively smoked.

The evening ended with the encore haymaker punches of “Murder (Or a Heart Attack),” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Dance with Me” and, of course, “Timebomb.” When it was over, everyone left a little drunker and a lot happier.

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