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.