Friday, April 15, 2011
The Old 97's @ Horseshoe Tavern: photo by Michael Ligon
Update[April 18/2011, 12:31 am]: Review now up.
While I'd barely caught on to the No Depression movement during its first wave except for hearing Uncle Tupelo's song "Whisky Bottle" off a promo cassette including with an issue of Alternative Press [back when it was a good magazine], I really started digging the alt-country scene in the mid-to-late 1990's with bands like Wilco, The Jayhawks, and a little ol' band called The Old 97's. I remember coming across a used copy of the band's debut major label album (but 3rd studio effort) entitled Too Far To Care in a Cash Converters. I'm not sure exactly what it was that convinced me to pick it up but I was immediately blown away by it's raucaus lead-off track "Timebomb" and by melancholy tear-jerker country ballads like "Salome". It was 1997 since that album came out and while Wilco, and to a lesser extent The Jayhawks had gone on to greater popularity, The Old 97's remained in relative obscurity, eventually their major label deal with Elektra records ending three albums in with 2004's Drag It Up and the band recording with the LA-based New West Records ever since. A fellow concert-goer reminded me that it was strange how the band never went on to greater popularity if but on the lady-killer looks of it's frontman Rhett Miller. I don't recall how often the band have played Toronto but the last opportunity to catch a configuration of the band was back in November when The Old 97's Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond were scheduled to play the El Mocambo and it got cancelled, so rather than let another opportunity slip away, there I was at the band's show at the Horseshoe Tavern on April 6.
I arrived a little into opener Teddy Thompson's set. It was only after I started researching that I found out he was the son of musical couple Richard and Linda Thompson and with such a pedigree, you'd expect some musical talent, and Teddy does definitely have it. With a competent although rather unspectacular rhythm section accompanying him, they performed a selection of originals mixed in with a cover of Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" illustrating Thompson's supple guitar playing and melodic vocals. Thompson's music, a mixture of country, folk, and jangly Byrds-influenced pop music, hits all the right notes in terms of authenticity and I found myself impressed with his songwriting but at the same time, it felt somewhat faceless, like I've heard it before. Already five albums into his career, his most recent being this year's Bella released this past February, Thompson continues to promote his musical wares, although ironically even part of Thompson's banter was a self-deprecating reference to his stalled musical career.
The Old 97's are vastly underappreciated in my opinion, but I fully expected a full-house for The Old 97's show at the Horseshoe a week and a half ago. As it turned out, there was a good loyal crowd on-hand but not the sell-out as I'd hoped. A mixed crowd of young-uns and older fans, the band consisting of Rhett Miller – lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Murry Hammond (bass guitar, occasional lead vocals, backup vocals, Ken Bethea (lead guitar) and Philip Peeples (drums and backup vocals) tore through a set including encore that lasted almost two hours by my count. The setlist included a bunch from their most recent album The Grand Theatre Volume One but with their indie album Wreck Your Life and their major label debut Too Far To Care getting multiple representation with some scattershot songs from a few of their albums plus a cover of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" also being included in the setlist.
Guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples were the more energetic of the foursome, tearing ferociously at times through their guitar and drum arrangements, although frontman Rhett Miller was no slouch at the mic, often his arm in mini-windmill motion against his drum strings. Bassist Murry Hammond was the most laid-back of the bunch but when he took to the mic accompanying himself for a rendition of "Valentine" it was one of the finest moments of the night. The Too Far To Care songs seemed to be the most popular of the night so when approximately nine songs into the set twang-inflected "Barrier Reef" finally showed up, the crowd perked up.
My only criticism of the night was that overall, the crowd while appreciative, was just too mellow. So while crowd faves like "Doreen", "Four Leaf Clover", "Rollerskate Skinny", "Big Brown Eyes", and "Timebomb" were everything an Old 97's could have asked for, I wished the crowd showed more energy. Especially, during encore closer "Timebomb", I'd have hoped the crowd would have been ALL OVER THAT and have collapsed in a bucket of sweat, but it did not happen. Such a reaction, or lack thereof, I won't necessarily blame on a Toronto apathetic music audience but really more on old age. But, hey if Rolling Stone fans of the elder generation can still bust a move during their shows, why can't older Old 97's fans do the same?
Photos: The Old 97's, Teddy Thompson @ Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto (April 6, 2011)
MySpace: Teddy Thompson
MySpace: The Old 97's