Mid-way through last night’s 100-minute set before a sold out crowd at the Beachland Ballroom, Old 97’s gray-haired bassist Murry Hammond rolled up the shirtsleeves of his red Western shirt. Ostensibly, it was because, as he put, “it’s a tad hot up here.” But the gesture was also symbolic of the extent to which the members of the alt-country band approach their live shows as if they are working on a ranch or performing some other task that requires physical strength. That’s not to say the guys act like they’re doing manual labor. They clearly revel in the physical side of the live show — something that’s distinguished them during their 20-year career. Last night, they again lived up to that reputation as a terrific live act.
The group opened with the rowdy “If My Heart Was a Car,” and singer-guitarist Rhett Miller tossed his floppy hair in the air as if he just didn’t care. Band members have bragged that they never rehearse and that certainly might be the case. If you were to compare the live renditions of many of the songs in the set, you’d find a number of flaws. “Dance with Me,” a country waltz of sorts, was played twice as fast as it should have been. Though the acoustic intro of “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” stayed true to its studio counterpart, the song quickly turned into a garage-y jam. And the band turned up the volume for “Every Night is Friday Night (Without You),” reveling in it as if were a punk rock anthem instead of a country-ish ballad. That’s not to say the show as a sloppy mess. The twangy “Victoria,” a song that typifies the band’s unique mix of rockabilly, country and punk, came off nicely as Miller’s parched, quivering vocals sounded particularly sharp. The ballad “Question” sounded great and showed off the band’s pop sensibilities.
On a tour to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, the band has been following a pretty stable set list. But last night, it mixed it up some, dusting off “West Texas Teardrops” at the request of some fans that had driven up from Pittsburgh for the show and playing an obscure tune from the 1996 album it recorded with Waylon Jennings. The climax came as opener Lydia Loveless joined Miller for “Four Leaf Clover”; she served as the Exene Cervenka to Miller’s John Doe. Loveless’ punk impulses also came through during her gritty hour-long opening set that featured a good mix of songs from the three albums she’s issued on the Chicago-based alt-country label Bloodshot.