Sunday, April 3, 2011

Every night is Friday night

Last time I saw the Old 97's was in Grand Rapids in 2009. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the show, but it didn't quite click with me the way 97's shows used to. There was a weird vibe in the crowd, and a fight broke out, which didn't help. I described the show afterward as "good, solid fun," and that was the truth. But dependable, "solid" fun wasn't enough to lure me to an out-of-town show Old 97's over the next year and a half. A Friday night show at the Barrymore, however, I couldn't turn down - even at the end of a busy, tiring week. Nothing wrong with a dependable good time, right? Well, as it turned out, I wouldn't describe the April 1st show as "good, solid fun." I'd lean more towards "really awesome."

Teddy Thompson opened the concert. Everything I knew about Teddy, I learned from people standing near me before the show. There were a couple of very excited college girls there, one of whom had seen Teddy in Madison before and fallen in love with him. She was open to hearing the Old 97's, but knew little about them - Teddy was her reason for attending. (She said she assumed most of the other girls were there to see "Bret Michaels." Ha!) An older gentleman mentioned that Teddy had famous parents, though he couldn't think of their names offhand. This tipped me off that Teddy must be Richard and Linda Thompson's son, but at first I thought I was mistaken - the pleasant country drawl of his songs made it sound like he'd come straight up from Texas. However, his stage banter - very dry and amusing - left no doubt as to his Britishness. Most of his songs were pretty straightforward country, but not hackneyed or "Nashville." The most pleasant surprise for me was his eerily spot-on cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway." Be it covers or originals, I'd be interested in hearing more from Mr. Thompson in the future.

Soon enough the lights dimmed again, and out came the Old 97's. They began with the title track of their latest record, "The Grand Theatre." Maybe I was just in the mood for some small-venue rock and roll - it's been awhile. Everyone near me up front was dancing and singing, fueled by alcohol but not completely wasted. The band followed "Grand Theatre" with "The Fool," and then Rhett got up on Philip's drum riser, leapt off, and launched into ... "Timebomb." Which was odd, because I seemed to recall that being a traditional closer. No matter; people were pogoing and shouting as if they'd been working up to it all night. When the song was over, the band said good night and left the stage. The house music came on.

April Fool! I don't think anyone was actually fooled, but it was pretty funny nonetheless. The band returned after a minute or two, Murry commented on the fact that only a single cup had been thrown onto the stage, and they resumed the show. And it was a hell of a show. The energy level had definitely gone up after the "closer," and for the most part stayed there for the rest of the night. The 97's played a long first set, including a bonus internet request: one of my favorites, "Wish the Worst." They also played a song I'm pretty sure I've never heard live before, certainly not from the full band: "Cryin' Drunk." I couldn't help thinking of a certain hateful governor when Rhett sang lyrics like, "Walker says you're a cancer." Speaking of Walker, Rhett affixed a pro-union button to one of his guitar straps early in the night, and later said that he's a union member and stands with the people of Wisconsin. It was nice to hear.

The first set ended on a hardcore rock 'n' roll high note, after Rhett gave himself a fat lip with the microphone and spit blood all over the stage during "Four Leaf Clover." He also bloodied his setlist, which was promptly stolen by a crazy male fan during the break. When Rhett came back out, he asked who had the setlist. As the crowd pointed to the busted fan, Rhett quipped, "You might want to get that tested."

Standing near me during the show was an 11-year-old girl, attending her first concert. She seemed to have an excellent time. Rhett made sure to say hello to her, and later asked her name when he stooped for a drink. When he came out to play a couple of acoustic songs at the start of the encore, he asked if there were any tracks from his solo records she'd like to hear. When she shook her head no, he joked, "Oh, you don't like those." Her mother explained that she was a new fan, but she's learning. (The girl did thank him for asking, which was very polite.) Rhett ended up playing "Come Around" and "Need to Know Where I Stand." He explained that he'd begun the latter in California many years ago, but it never quite went anywhere ... until one night, when he was sitting backstage right here at the Barrymore Theater, and he suddenly realized how to make it into a song. A rendition of the always-lovely "Valentine" by Murry, with Rhett on backing vocals, rounded out the acoustic portion of the night, and the band came back on for four more songs - making it a total of twenty-nine on the evening.

I'd been wondering how they were going to close the show, since they'd already played "Timebomb" and "Four Leaf Clover." The answer was ... "Timebomb!" Again! The second round was even better. By the time the band left the stage, they'd given me a much more exhilarating Friday night than I'd bargained for. It turns out that I don't always know what I'll get from an Old 97's show after all, and I couldn't be happier about it.

The Grand Theatre
The Fool
Champaign, Illinois
W. TX Teardrops
Let the Whiskey Take the Reins
The New Kid
Buick City Complex
Mama Tried
Please Hold on While the Train is Moving
Wish the Worst
Designs on You
You Were Born to Be in Battle
Here's to the Halcyon
Cryin' Drunk
A State of Texas
Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)
Won't Be Home
Four Leaf Clover
Come Around (Rhett solo)
I Need to Know Where I Stand (Rhett solo)
Valentine (Murry and Rhett)
Dance With Me
Big Brown Eyes
Murder (or a Heart Attack)

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