I ♥ the Old 97’s

Missing the Old 97’s show in Seattle a few weeks just about broke my heart.  I usually count on the band to patch my heart together or at least shock it back to life with their rocking songs about lost loves and lost times.  Way back, almost to ‘97, in the fall of 1998, I lucked into seeing the Old 97’s when they opened for Chris Isaak at the Backyard in Austin.  At a melancholic phase of my life—post-college, post-boyfriend—I longed for the sonic retreat of Isaak’s blue tunes.

Waiting for him to take the stage, I found my toes tapping to the opening band, which I often ignored.  But this band—“the Old 97’s, y’all” as lead singer Rhett Miller announced—got my attention and much of the crowd’s, not a minor feat at an outdoor amphitheater with multiple bars.  The music, with its catchy hooks and sprawling sound, exerted its presence as did the members of the band.  Those four guys rocked hard, but singer Miller was the most fantastic, dancing and throwing around rock star moves from the seventies.  He swung his skinny hips to the beat and practically swallowed the microphone belting out his clever lyrics about love gone wrong.

The Old 97’s owned that stage in 1998, just like every venue at which I’ve seen them since.  Their music is accessible—when you hear a new song, you want to know the words so you can sing along, but it’s not simple.  It’s alt country at its best: rock swagger and instrumentation with country licks, punk attitude, and artful lyrics that invite both at-home listening and screaming sing-along.

Chris Isaak fell out of my rotation a decade ago, but the Old 97’s are still going strong.  Whenever I listen to one of their albums, particularly the live “Alive and Wired,” I shake and shimmy as at that first show thirteen years ago.  According to reviews of the show I just missed, the 97’s dished out the tunes with the same verve and conviction as always.  And like those reviewers, I’m already pining for another show.  Next time I’ll be there, with my heart on my sleeve.

Shake Your Hips

The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street is getting a lot of spin due to its recent reissue.  Originally released in 1972, Exile includes two blues covers: a Robert Johnson song and “Shake Your Hips” by Slim Harpo, a Louisiana bluesman whose songs appeared on the pop charts in the sixties just a few years before those of the Stones.  Both Johnson and Harpo died young (Johnson at 27 and Harpo at 46).  While Johnson’s blues legend status developed posthumously, Harpo’s notoriety has waned since his death in 1970.

Recently on the local show “All Blues,” I heard the Stones’ version of Harpo’s 1966 hit.  Softening the song’s crisp edges, the Stones crafted a bluesy slurry.  Jagger, curling his voice around another man’s words, concocted a southern American accent a little too contrived for my taste.  While I enjoyed hearing the Stones’ take, the cover didn’t move me as other Stones’ songs do.

Or like Harpo’s original version, which makes me dance.  “Don’t move your head / Don’t move your hands / Don’t move your lips / Just shake your hips. ”  Harpo sings these lyrics cleanly, pronouncing each syllable, and this precision is echoed in the rhythm guitar riff that grounds the song.  Only the harmonica and lead guitar wail. Swinging around the clean baseline, these flourishes create a bluesy sexuality appropriately penned in by the rhythm guitar.

According to many sources, Harpo lifted the baseline riff from John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen,” (a musical touchstone for many blues and rock artists).  Like much of the blues, Harpo’s song is derivative too.  But his composition strikes a great balance between sentiment and structure, making his original a hard version to best.

(To explore more of Harpo’s music, The Best of Slim Harpo on Hip-O records is considered the best collection of his work.)

The Lyric Moment

Remember driving alone late at night, the soft air drifting in through open windows.  You’ve just finished your night—dinner with friends, a great live show, or maybe a fight with your significant other.  You’re on your way home or you’re driving nowhere looking only for a new state of mind.  And then a song starts playing on the radio and, from the first chords, it’s the right speed, the right sound, the right words.  Your world falls away, and you’re living only in the arc of the song.

I’m not able to make music like that.  Although I’m the child of a drummer and a singer, I possess little to no musical talent.  I can find the beat in a song, but I can’t find pitch or a note on the piano.  I’ve had ample opportunity to locate some innate musical skill—sixth grade choir, seven years at the clarinet, failed attempts at piano and guitar.  I can plunk out the notes on the page, but I can’t kid myself that I’m making music.

While my parents didn’t pass along their natural facility, they did introduce me to great music.  I saw Bruce Springsteen when I was eight, Ella Fitzgerald when I was eleven.  John Prine at twelve.  The Flatlanders.  Steve Earle. Emmylou Harris.  I have found the rest of popular music through good friends and good radio (yes it still exists).

So where am I going with this?  I may not be a musician, but I’m devoted listener and student of pop music history.  Music remains enough of a mystery that I devote time to understanding what makes a song work.  What makes it ramble and build, turn and break, resolve.  What makes it play in my head long after the album has stopped turning.

The synthesis of sound and verse offers us transcendence, a fleeting moment of clarity derived from but beyond our normal experience.  A lyric moment.  Let’s take a spin.