I’m not old enough to attend a 15th anniversary tour of an album I loved while I was in high school. Well, obviously I am. That album, of course, is The Old 97s’ 1997 masterpiece Too Far to Care, which gave us such great songs as “Timebomb,” “Melt Show,” and “Streets of Where I’m From.” The Dallas-based Old 97s are an alt-country group. Actually, they are the alt-country group, as other mainstays of the genre have either broken up or shifted into new musical styles, and numerous imitators have followed them. And despite being together for twenty years, they are still going strong.
I saw them at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA (Charlottesville is the home of the University of Virginia, and a bit of a hip oasis in the American South). The show was, to be blunt, awesome.
Front man Rhett Miller opened with a short solo set, which showed off his formidable rhythm guitar playing, as well as singing skills. This was followed by The Travoltas, a kind of hipster parody of a Vegas lounge act (whom I recommend highly).
Then the Old 97s came on.
They played all of Too Far to Care, ripping through the classic songs with an energy that belies the bandmembers’ middle age. Rhett has a Mark Wahlberg-esque perpetual youth. His voice is still as strong as it was in the 90s, and he often strummed with a mini-windmill that I’m not sure I could pull off. Lead Guitarist Ken Bethea unleashes incredible riffs and solos that fit well with both the group’s hard-rocking hits and mellower country fare. Bassist Murray Hammond kept the beat with flair, and even drummer Philip Peeples had a few moments to shine.
At the close of the album, they segued immediately into another set. It included other Old 97s songs and a few covers, including a great version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” Then, after an extended encore, they ended with a rousing reprise of “Timebomb.”
I’m torn about these album-anniversary tours, however: bands a bit past their prime who go on tour not to promote a new album, but to play through the entirety of a classic one. In a way they’re great, as they put an emphasis on the album—rather than Itunes single—that is lacking in today’s world. But they also run the risk of turning great bands who should still be trendsetters into museum pieces: my generation’s version of watching 80-year old Mick Jagger strut around the stage.
Like most people at the show, I have a lot of memories surrounding Too Far to Care. Angstily listening to “Timebomb” in high school, sadly putting on “Streets of Where I’m From” when I hit my mid-20s, quickly turning on “Melt Show” in my office to impress a coworker (who is now my fiancé: take note, lovestruck alt-country fans).
This show validated all my nostalgia, but shouldn’t we want more out of our favorite bands? The Grateful Dead and The Who constantly reinterpreted their favorites, Wilco recently veered into electronica. As much as we might dislike the blues version of “My Generation” or wish Tweedy would go back to country-fried noise-rock, it’s nice they keep pushing us fans on.
The question, then, is whether the Old 97s have ossified into a well-aged version of their younger selves, preserving the glory of alt-country for posterity, or whether they will continue to grow, develop and be relevant. Either way, I’m now old—well past 25—and it’s nice to know The Old 97s are getting old with me.
The Old 97s are on tour through March 2013
This article was first posted on February 16, 2013