Barn raising in lower Manhattan

The Old 97's bust out all over New York's Bowery Ballroom.

Published July 16, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

The Old 97's, a hook-happy quartet of raucously introspective
nerds from the great Southwest, are busting out all over. On the heels
of their splendid new pop-twang-and-heartbreak release, "Fight
Songs," the band turned up at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom Thursday night
and in the tradition of the best American popular minstrels, simultaneously
asserted and abolished all conceits of
regionalism in an energetic, unselfconscious blur. Near the end of its
set, the band had achieved the seemingly impossible: They moved a sizeable
contingent of downtown Manhattan hipsters to do something
resembling the two-step with their breakneck cover of Bill Monroe's
"Sweet Blue-Eyed Darlin.'"

This sort of spirited eclecticism is key to the unassuming
grandeur of the band. In an age when faux-country "Americana" has
emerged as the identity politics of first resort for white slacker
bands of all description, the 97's ply country-inflected pop of direct
emotional power, and gleefully sidestep any painstaking postures of
purism and authenticity. They are, blessedly, all garage and no

And like the West Texas plains that they call home, the 97's are a
triumph of bigness. First and foremost is the voice of
front man/guitarist Rhett Miller
, who delivers even the odd tender
ballad, such as the Raymond Carver meets Antonio Carlos Jobim
postmortem of the heart, "What We Talk About"
in such a cavernous tone of bewildered mourning that you half expect a coyote to pick up
the chorus. Looking like a detoxed, collegiate Robert Downey Jr.,
Miller flailed cheerfully at his rhythm guitar, while the more
composed Ken Bethea delivered the big-note, low-string leads and fills that both
cushion and inflame Miller's careening yowl. Meanwhile, Philip Peeples remained expertly hunched
over his drums like they were a lab experiment, spurring on Murry
Hammond's fluid bass work. (Hammond, no vocal slouch himself, also
delivered spot-on high harmonies and the occasional counterpoint lead,
usually on twangier offerings such as the quietly devastating "Valentine.")

The material proper mines the well-worn pop themes of romantic
anguish, loneliness and loss, but does so in such beguiling, melodic
fashion that fans found themselves cheerily humming along with Miller even on
"Lonely Holiday," as he drily sang, "Thought so much about
suicide/Parts of me have already died." This tension between jaunty
form and slouching content is what gives conviction to the great
American traditions of country and pop music, and the Old 97's are
equally at home in their mastery of each.

By Chris Lehmann

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