The Old 97’s are such a fixture on the Twin Cities concert calendar that I almost forgot to get excited for their November 12 gig at the Fine Line Music Cafe. A Tuesday night show, no big deal, just another of the band’s many recent runs through town—but these are guys I’ve listened to (Last.fm doesn’t lie) more than the Talking Heads, more than David Bowie, more than Tom Waits.
The band’s Tuesday night set list was evidence of why. A casual saunter through their songbook included “Barrier Reef,” “W. TX Teardrops,” “Question,” “Designs On You,” “Four Leaf Clover,” “Timebomb,” and other burnished classics from their endlessly listenable catalog. Frontman Rhett Miller mentioned that the band have been working on a new album, which he told Rolling Stone will be “barnstorming, revved-up honky-tonk.” Those sessions seem to have put the quartet in a loose mood, and they grinned their way through a long set that included a preview of the new material: a song called “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On.”
Recent releases by the Old 97’s have plumbed the band’s unreleased sessions: last year they re-released their 1997 album Too Far to Care with an extra disc of demos, and this year finally saw the release of Old 97’s & Waylon Jennings, a six-song collection recorded in 1996. On Tuesday they played almost half of Too Far to Care, as well as two songs (“The Other Shoe” and “Iron Road”) sung by Jennings on the EP. By contrast, the band’s dips into their middle years—notably the mandatory “Question” and “Designs On You” from 2001’s outstanding Satellite Rides—sounded a little perfunctory, despite the graceful full-band arrangement of the former track, originally a sparse acoustic number.
Attentive to the crowd, Miller and bassist Murry Hammond bantered extensively about Minnesota, including an enthusiastic mention of Miller’s recent appearance on Wits—a Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media show he called “brilliant”—and a mention of the origins of the Old 97’s song “Champaign, Illinois.”
“One of my all-time favorite songwriters is from your great state of Minnesota,” said Miller. “Bob Dylan.”
“I thought you were going to say Bob Mould,” interjected Hammond.
“Well,” replied Miller, acknowledging the Hüsker Dü founder, “Bob Mould too.” Miller then explained how “Champaign” was written over the chords of “Desolation Row,” and how the band finally secured Dylan’s permission to release the song, with the Hibbing native’s blessing and compliments. “That’s a good song,” Miller remembered Dylan saying.
“When you talk to him now,” observed Hammond, “he kind of sounds like Tom Waits.”
All it all, it was just another night with the Old 97’s—which means, given that all four original band members are still barnstorming together after 20 years, it was a minor miracle.
Openers Trapper Schoepp and the Shades, from Milwaukee, were so perfectly paired that they might have been brought into existence to be an opening band for the Old 97’s. Schoepp shares Miller’s fondness for wry lyrics and loose Americana, as well as his copious hair and dreamy good looks. The openers’ set started stronger than it ended, going from shameless barroom bluster (think Georgia Satellites) to polite story songs (think the less inspired recent work of, say, John Hiatt). If they lean towards the latter in coming years, Trapper Schoepp might land a placement on a rom-com soundtrack—but if they lean back towards the former, they might really rock.
Old 97’s Set list
Brown Haired Daughter
No Baby I
W. TX Teardrops
Can’t Get a Line
Big Brown Eyes
Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving
Designs On You
The Other Shoe
Wish the Worst
Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On
Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)
I’m a Trainwreck
Four Leaf Clover