Turning the expansive stage of The Pageant and its surroundings into a small intimate club is a hard thing for some bands to do -- not the Old 97s. This veteran band and their loyal fans have a strong bond dating back to the early days due to the band's extensive touring. When the band hit the stage at 9:44 p.m. sporting a casual country look of plaid shirts and jeans the audience was ready to go.
Early in their career the Dallas, TX based Old 97s found that St. Louis had a fondness for their brand of country infused rock & roll music. The band's début album came out in late 1994, the same year that Uncle Tupelo played their final shows at Mississippi Nights and the Bottle Rockets were just starting to heat up along with the rest of the Alt-Country scene. The Old 97s hit town every 6 to 8 months playing shows at venues all over town like Cicero's, The Hi-Pointe, a Fair St. Louis stage on Lacede's Landing among others.
During Friday night's set The Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller reminisced about playing some of their early shows at the early St. Louis shows at the old location of Cicero's (a space now occupied by The Duck Room). “We’ve always had great shows here, all the way back to Cicero’s and the Hi Pointe.” He joked, “I always bumped my head on the ceiling at the Hi Pointe. The Pageant has their shit together; they didn’t put a metal beam right here” pointing to the space just under a foot above his head.
With the balcony at the venue closed, the crowd filled the lower level of the Pageant to near capacity though not uncomfortably. Comprised of mostly 30 and 40-year-olds, including a large contingent of women appreciating the dashing good looks of the seemingly ageless Rhett Miller, currently 40 himself, the audience sang along and danced to the solid, energetic set.
Playing a large majority of their recent 2010 album The Grand Theatre Volume One, the Old 97s entertained the crowd for nearly two hours with a 27 song set that included songs from each of their 8 studio albums. The band treated the audience to 3 songs each from the trio of their classic 1990s albums Wreck Your Life, Too Far To Care and Fight Songs. Though the most solid of the three albums, Fight Songs, seemed to get the short end of the stick. None of the songs from record found its way until deep into 14 songs into the set. Perhaps, however, the band purposely stayed away from the polished pop sound of that record to keep distance between the band and Rhett Miller's solo material as evidenced by the songs played from the album "Jagged", "Indefinitely" and "Valentine." A minor gripe for sure.
While Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond stayed anchored to their microphones for singing duties, guitarist Ken Bethea roamed the stage with his Fender Telecaster and a long guitar chord in tow entertaining the crowd on both sides with his solid guitar playing. Not one to be outdone, Miller kept his female fans happy with some energetic hip-shaking and hair tossing.
Though Bethea has traditionally played a Telecaster, for the songs from the new album he played a dark red hollow body Gretsch with tremolo that he clearly enjoyed. The guitar tech kept busy keeping Bethea's three Telecasters and the aforementioned Gretsch tuned and ready to go for the set. This rotation kept him so busy enough that Miller ended up starting the song "Question" with his own Telecaster and switched part way through back to his Gibson acoustic. Miller expertly un-strapped his Telecaster and switched guitars all while singing the verses to the song without missing a note.
Evenly moving at a steady pace from one song to the next without too much banter, the band interspersed new songs with old and got large rise out of the audience for songs like "Stoned", "Champaign, Illinois" and especially with "A State Of Texas" where Miller asked for a show of hands of those audience members from Texas. Yet, the upbeat trio of "Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)", "Big Brown Eyes" and "Doreen" ended the main set with a bang with Philip Peeples shining on drums.
The encore started with Miller playing a solo version of "Singular Girl", but the highlight ended up being a great version of "Valentine" with Murry Hammond playing acoustic guitar and Miller backing him up beautifully on harmony vocals. Expectedly the encore ended with the super high energy "Timebomb."
The night started off at 7:45 p.m. with an early set from the Whiskey Folk Ramblers. This new Texas-based band played a 1/2 hour set that left me wanting more from them. Their sound quite complementary for an opening act of a show headlined by the Old 97s. Consisting of 6 members playing stand-up bass, drums, electric guitar, horn/percussion, acoustic guitar/lead vocals and a multi-instrumentalist (accordion, banjo and harmonica) the band filled the stage. Rhett Miller remarked during the Old 97s set that they specifically brought the Whiskey Folk Ramblers up from Texas for the show and encouraged the crowd to buy their album because in the future they could tell their friends they had known this great band from the start.
After a quick 15-minute changeover, Those Darlins took the stage and brought a contrasting indie rock/mid 70s NYC punk sound. The group of 3 women playing guitars and bass with man playing drums had a thin sound from their Fender guitars. A comparison to Liz Phair would not be unfair, but the lyrics did not have as much wry irony nor wit. However, their sound felt lost in this venue and the crowd seemed disinterested. Other friends told me that previous visits to town at Off Broadway were better performances and that their material had shifted from a country sound to an indie rock feel. Maybe in that other setting the band might fare better, but not this time.
The Old 97s set list
The Grand Theatre
Here's To The Halcyon
The Dance Class
Blame It On Gravity
You Smoke Too Much
W. Tx. Teardrops
Please Hold On While The Train Is Moving
You Were Born To Be In Battle
A State Of Texas
Dance With Me
Let The Whiskey Take The Rains
Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)
Big Brown Eyes
Singular Girl (Rhett Miller solo)
Valentine (Murry Hammond on guitar & Rhett Miller backing vocals)