I recently saw an Old 97’s show with my friend Kenny at the Tarrytown Music Hall, an 843-seat capacity theater built in 1885, the oldest in Westchester County and one of just 6% of theaters in the U.S. built before 1900. It’s a sleepy place. I’ve been to about a dozen concerts there before, and crowds are generally respectful, mostly older, and always seated, not simply as conventional behavior but as specifically enforced by theater management. On this night, however, lead singer Rhett Miller made an early announcement that he’d checked with security – I’m fairly certain he’d done no such thing – and that it was okay to come up to the front and dance. What instantly followed wasn’t exactly The Who in Cincinnati, but nonetheless was still an impressive suburban stampede: Much of the sold-out crowd rushed the stage, where they remained enthusiastically hopping around for the duration of the 23-song, 2-hour show.
And who could blame them. Old 97’s are truly a fantastic band. Hailing from Dallas, Texas, playing what most would call alt-country but what Miller likes to refer to as “loud folk,” with a group that still consists of the same four members – Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond, and drummer Philip Peeples – now intact for nearly 25 years. And, oh what a front-man Miller is (ladies, I think you know what I mean): He swings both his hair and his guitar-strumming right arm and seems at times a cross between Dave Grohl and David Cassidy. As pioneers of the alt-country movement during the mid-to-late ‘90’s, they’ve been around long enough to record 13 albums, the latest being 2017’s stellar Graveyard Whistling, as well as appearing in an extended concert scene in the 2006 movie “The Break-Up” in which Vince Vaughn stands up Jennifer Aniston at an Old 97’s show in Chicago. I’m not sure which is more inexcusable, skipping out on Aniston or on the band.
Their first encore at our show was this slow-starting then hard-charging tune, ‘Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,’ a candid appraisal of life in a band and life on the road, that, as the father of a young band member taking numerous tours around the country leaves me with some degree of mixed feelings. But then again, not really. In the end, listening to Miller’s shouted chorus – “Rock and roll’s been very, very good to me / The open road’s the only place I wanna be” – that’s pretty damn hard to argue with. That, and the line towards the end where he proudly proclaims, “I never once went to work for The Man.”
By the way, my friend Kenny went into the show completely cold; he’d never seen or heard any Old 97’s before, and by night’s end was a rabid fan. I honestly can’t imagine anyone checking them out and not feeling the same way. So screw you, Vince Vaughn.