By SHAY COLLINS
The Haunt suits the Old 97’s unassuming and wholehearted sound perfectly. The Dallas natives played at the venue on Friday night to a crowd that, for most of the show, filled every space between the stage and the bar. Save for a stray noodle dancer and a lumbering, bearded thirty year-old who yelled, “Why aren’t you all fucking dancing?” the crowd happily bobbed heads, knees and feet to the set, beers in hand. Old 97’s is, after all, a superb bar band that has carved out a two-decade career, largely in smaller venues.
In his Pitchfork review of the group’s 2014 Most Messed Up, Stephen Deusner calls it straight: Old 97’s has past its reckless youth years. But, Deusner notes, the group has “the gumption to admit that they can’t keep singing about romantic vindictiveness when they’re all married with kids.” When the group nailed out the chorus of their first song of the night (“Give It Time”) no one in the venue was thinking about star power or record deals. Old 97’s brought the Texas country atmosphere to upstate New York as Rhett Miller and Murray Hammond cried out in soulful harmony: “Give it time / And it will break you.”
Before the Old 97’s began crooning their nostalgia, up-and-comers Banditos fired up the crowd with songs about still being in throes of Southern rock: drinkin’, heartbreak and killer blues guitar. Whereas Old 97’s distills their ideas into stripped-down, sincere songs, Banditos thrives in excess. The Birmingham, Alabama six-piece looked cramped on The Haunt’s stage, but still put forth full-bodied grit. Banditos vocalist Mary Beth Richardson quickly became the group’s focal point. Richardson’s voice conjures up Janis Joplin or modern great, Brittany Howard and, on “Long Gone, Anyway,” she played the kazoo like few in the audience had ever heard before.
On slower and pared-down songs, founding members Corey Parsons (guitar, vocals) and Stephen Pierce (banjo, vocals) revealed themselves as the group’s masterminds. Pierce’s understated banjo playing completely transforms “Old Ways” as Parsons tears through dreamy guitar riffs. The group (rounded out with guitarist Jeffrey Salter, bassist Danny Vines and Danny Wade on drums) blazed through an energetic set that drew many concertgoers away from the bar and into the pit before heading off with a laid-back “Old 97’s are up next.”
News took a second to spread through The Haunt that the main attraction had taken the stage, as the Old 97’s jogged on to the Gipsy King’s “Hotel California” cover. Perhaps with exception of Rhett Miller’s flowing mane and loose chambray shirt, the Old 97’s bear none of the markings of a headlining alt-country/rock group. It’s a fact that Miller seems to occasionally struggle with, stating in Deusner’s Pitchfork review, “Rock stars were once such mythical creatures … Now you just do it ‘cause it’s something you do.”
Yet, the Old 97’s’ lack of showmanship makes the group all the more relatable, whether they’re playing in a small, upstate city or a West Texas dive bar. Bassist Murray Hammond received a burst of laughter for a crack about getting dragged into bars as a kid by his dad before the group played “W. TX. Teardrops.” Later, Hammond tossed Merle Haggard’s name out to the crowd and, receiving enough shouts and whistles, the group played a souped-up cover of “Mama Tried.” When the group came back for their encore, Hammond articulated through his West Texas drawl, “As you can tell from the speed of our return, our leaving was fraudulent.”
The Old 97’s consistency, however, is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the group maintains a bar band par excellence. While lead guitarist Ken Bethea rotated through a number of beautiful, classic guitars (skewed heavily towards Fenders), Miller played most of the show on a Gibson Hummingbird before switching to a Telecaster of his own, while Hammond spent the whole night on the same hollow-body Guild bass. Seeing the Old 97’s means seeing a full-packed night of tight, clean Texas rock and country.
Conversely, the band is better described as a group of storytellers than as innovators and portions of their nearly two-hour set seemed to drone on. Thankfully, in a venue as small as The Haunt and with a crowd as receptive as Friday night’s, Miller’s vocals were enough to engross the audience, with some help thrown in by Bethea’s excellent country soloing and Philip Peeples’ simple, metronomic drumming.
The Old 97’s lyrics are, arguably, both their strongest asset and a compelling reason to see the group live, in a small venue. Belted out in Miller and Hammond’s clear, earnest voices, the group plays songs about drunken frustration (“I might just get drunk tonight / and burn the nightclub down”), goofy wordplay (“‘I’m a serial lady-killer’ / She said, ‘I’m already dead,’”) and occasionally just plain irreverence (“You poured whiskey in my Slurpee / swear to God you got me drunk.”)
More often than not, Old 97’s strengths — witty and eloquent lyrics; fast, driving country drumming and screaming guitar solos — combined to make brilliant live renditions that burned through without pause. Old 97’s tore through their last encore song — “Time Bomb” — which features one of the group’s best lines: “I got it badly for a stick-legged girl / She’s gonna kill me, and I don’t mean softly,” before whipping off their instruments and waving to the crowd. The Refreshment’s “Yahoos and Triangles” (better known to many as the “King of the Hill” theme song) blared over the P.A. system as college kids, country devotees and curious Ithacans alike streamed into the chilly October night.
Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.