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.