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all words: Phil Runco
all photos: Kimberly Cadena

I’ll always have a soft spot for the alt-country of mid to late-90s.

Wilco, the Jayhawks, Son Volt, the Bottle Rockets, Whiskeytown: the bands were only loosely associated, and I caught the scene towards the end of its trajectory, but it was still the first – and, well, only – “movement” I bought into completely, from side-projects and tangentially affiliated acts to mailing lists and bootleg trading.

There were limits to my appreciation though. Identifying with failed marriages can be bit of a stretch for a high schooler, and I wasn’t exactly a tortured artist.  Fortunately, the Old 97s didn’t present those challenges.

Frontman Rhett Miller’s pent-up sexual frustration, self-deprecating humor, and plainspoken yearning were fairly palpable to a teenage boy. It helped that his band served that angst up accessibly with spiky country rock and big, confident hooks.

There was no pretense, and while the band’s peers gradually veered towards orchestral psych pop and bloated classic rock, the Old 97’s showed little interest in some grand artistic statement.  They dropped the twang, but kept plugging along with concise pop.

Somewhere along the way though, I lost track of the Old 97’s.  Or maybe I just lost interest.  It wasn’t that Miller’s commercial ambitions (and stylish makeover) with The Instigator (2002) rubbed me the wrong way, as it did much of the band’s original base.  (Yes, the songs are saccharine, but they still hold up pretty well.)

It was that when Miller’s star turn failed to catapult him to the next level, he sounded like he crawled back to the Old 97’s with his tail between his legs.  Drag it Up (2004) felt like a tepid retread, and the god-awful cover art of Blame It on Gravity (2008) tells you all you need to know about that record’s backbone.

So I’ll be honest: when I heard Old 97’s were coming to 9:30 Club, I assumed it was on the heels of a new best-of compilation or a live record.  I had no idea the band had put out an eighth studio album, Grand Theater, Volume One, in October no less.

But as it turns out, it’s pretty good! If the record lacks any particularly memorable anthems, it certainly isn’t from a lack of trying: Miller and company sound reinvigorated, resurrecting the honky-tonk swagger that defined earlier records, and jettisoning most of the sap.  New West Records sells the record as an attempt to capture the foursome’s live energy, and on the whole, it’s actually successful in doing so.

The band was understandably eager to showcase the new songs on Sunday night, packing eight of them – and one from the forthcoming Volume 2 – into its lively and efficient twenty-eight song set. The material fit in nicely among older entries, in large part because it draws unabashedly – though tastefully – from the Old 97’s past glories.  Opener “The Grand Theater” interpolated the menacingly lumbering guitar of “Just like California” with the stomp of “Jagged” while “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)” recalled the nervous energy of Satellite Rides’ power pop, albeit with feistier bass from Murray Hammond.

Well into his 40s, Hammond still plays with remarkable dexterity. A few years ago Jeff Tweedy commented to Chuck Klosterman that an Uncle Tupelo reunion was unlikely in part because he didn’t think he could play bass that quickly anymore.  Hammond doesn’t seem to have that problem, and the buoyancy of his bass – matched by Ken Bethea’s tightly wound guitar – are what define the band live just as much as Miller’s tunes.

That energy comes down when Hammond takes the mic, as he did four times on this night (“You Were Born to Be in Battle”, “Smokers”, “Valentine”, and Merle Haggard cover “Mama Tried”).  His understated delivery was tempered and smoky, and his arrangements more traditionally country and western. That restraint nicely offset Rhett Miller’s excitable yelps.

And Miller was quite excitable. Wearing what looked look a polka dot point collar shirt and sticking with the flowing locks, he didn’t exactly look like he belonged on stage with the rest of the band’s Average Joes, but he certainly poured himself into the performance nonetheless.  His hips were in perpetual motion, shaking side to side, or lurching back and forth. That hair became matted to his head as his sweat glands showed no sign of relenting.  Say what you will about the cultivation of his pretty boy persona: Miller doesn’t phone it in live.

The problem of going for broke so persistentlyis that it can flatten a performance. The band was so keen to deliver energetic rave-ups that the effect was sometimes exhausting.  Bethea only has so many ways to make a rockabilly solo sound fresh and exciting. Indeed, some of the set’s highlights came from its quieter moments: the sinister and slinky “Let the Whiskey Take the Reins”, and Miller’s solo performances of “Ray Charles” and “Come Around” to start the encore.

Of course, old favorites still connected with the enthusiastic crowd.  Songs from 1997’s Too Far to Care (“Big Brown Eyes”, “Great Barrier Reef”) and 1999’s Fight Songs (“Valentine”, “Indefinitely”) were greeted with knowing recognition and group sing-alongs. I would have liked to have heard some more of Satellite Rides’ streamlined pop balance out the night’s predominant twang, but the band drew up its setlist with an egalitarian eye, touching on all eight LPs, a rarities EP, and Miller’s Instigator.

“This is what we do for our living,” Miller told the crowd after a ramshackle take on “Doreen”.  After almost a decade of fighting against its strengths, the sentiment could double as reminder for the band itself.