Saturday, September 01, 2012

Old 97's delight with full-album run through 'Too Far To Care' at the Observatory

My review was originally posted on the Soundcheck blog on The Orange County Register site on Friday, August 31, 2012.

Old 97's delight with full-album run through 'Too Far to Care' in Santa Ana

Rhett Miller, left, and Murry Hammond of Old 97's at the Observatory.
Old 97's might be a mere week into an extended tour celebrating the 15th anniversary of their beloved 1997 album Too Far to Care, but the Dallas-spawned alt-country outfit is clearly firing on all cylinders. In a hard-rocking performance Thursday (Aug. 30, 2012) at the Observatory in Santa Ana, the quartet capably tackled their 13-track major-label debut from start to finish before unleashing another set of original gems pulled from their ever-growing collection of notable releases.
Across 90 fast-moving minutes, singer-guitarist Rhett Miller, bassist-singer Murry Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples played with the same freewheeling abandon that is standard operating procedure for this band. And while Miller was at times a bit hoarse, straining to reach a few high notes, there is little doubt that he’s that rare singer able to turn such challenges to his advantage. He’d simply back off the mic and strum away on his guitar amid the boisterous, cascading mix of honky-tonk, melodic choruses and country-tinged garage-rock-on-steroids that defines Old 97’s.
Charging versions of gems off Too Far to Care were a big part of the delight Thursday night. “Barrier Reef” established the band’s signature blend, while “Salome” and “Big Brown Eyes” offered up various shades of melodic rock. The latter track began as an acoustic piece but grew in power with a potent finale featuring Miller and Hammond sweetly singing in tandem as Bethea unleashed dazzling licks on electric guitar.
With other songs – take “Niteclub” – the basic act of rocking with unbridled power seemed to be enough. “House That Used to Be” was just as fierce, but its deeply affecting lyrics and subtle textures ultimately showcased the band’s superb chops, bringing greater depth to all they do.
The final track off Too Far to Care, “Four Leaf Clover,” provided a perfect opportunity to bring out X singer Exene Cervenka, who shared lead vocals with Miller on the original studio recording. A resident of nearby Orange, Cervenka was delighted and seemed to have a blast on the energetic take. She thankfully stuck around to join a rendition of the Lead Belly tune “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” (redone by X for 1982′sUnder the Big Black Sun), with her harmonies adding a definite boost.
The one clear thing about the group’s impressive 25-song set was how tightly these guys still hold together. While many group sputter a bit after two decades, Old 97’s – who formed in 1992 and released their debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, two years later – remain relevant and at the peak of their creative powers. The addition of newer material (“Champaign, Illinois,” “I’m a Trainwreck”) confirmed they’re still making music as great as what’s on Too Far to Care.
The night actually started just after 8 p.m. when Miller came out alone and delivered a laid-back five-song acoustic set. Emphasizing material off his latest solo release, this year’s The Dreamer, he played the confessional “Lost Without You” and “Sleepwalkin’” in a more stripped-down approach than how they sounded at the Coach House earlier this year. The audience got a real treat, however, when he performed one of the outtakes from Too Far to Care, the tuneful Americana folk song “Holy Cross.” That cut is set to be issued on a special 15th anniversary deluxe edition of the album due Oct. 9 from Omnivore Recordings.

Sandwiched between Miller’s solo outing and the full-length jaunt from Old 97’s was a 70-minute set from Those Darlings, a quartet that also explores the sonic terrain between garage-rock and country. Yet the band’s sound frequently lacked the graceful construction needed to fully succeed. The catchy “Screws Get Loose” and Social Distortion-esque “Hives” were among the better bits from the Nashville troupe.
Old 97′s at the Observatory, Santa Ana, Aug. 30, 2012
Rhett Miller solo set: Lost Without You / Holy Cross / Sleepwalkin’ / Come Around / The Wreck of the Old 97 (Johnny Cash cover)
Main set: Too Far to Care: Timebomb / Barrier Reef / Broadway / Salome / W. TX Teardrops / Melt Show / Streets of Where I’m From / Big Brown Eyes / Just Like California / Curtain Calls / Niteclub / House That Used to Be / Four Leaf Clover (with Exene Cervenka) // Dancing with Tears in My Eyes (Lead Belly/X cover, with Exene Cervenka) / Crash on the Barrelhead / Champaign, Illinois / Dance with Me / The Other Shoe / White Port / Won’t Be Home / Question / Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You) / I’m a Trainwreck
Encore: Wish the Worst / Victoria
The band again plays Too Far to Care and other favorites tonight and Saturday (Aug. 31-Sept. 1) at El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., in Los Angeles. Tickets are $27.

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