TVD Live: Old 97’s at
the Hamilton, 12/31

In the 2014 song “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” the Old 97’s note “most of our shows were a triumph of rock, although some nights I might have been checkin’ the clock.” Checking the clock is what playing New Year’s Eve gigs are all about. And though Texas band’s return to the tony Hamilton in Washington, D.C., was largely the relentless breakneck paced double-time country-tinged rocking their fans have come to love, there were some accommodations to the approaching midnight hour.

First, it involved lengthening their set by about a third from the night before (as they did on a similar stint at the same club the last two days of the year in 2014, and those of us who opted for the December 30 performance then adjusted accordingly this time).

To access a countdown clock just before midnight, they got the light guy to project the final two minutes of 2016 from Carson Daly’s Times Square telecast. Squeezing in one more super-fast song before the deadline, it was 10-9-8, cheap champagne in plastic flutes, and another 10 songs or so.

You get the feeling the clock is not the biggest concern of the band the other 364 days of the year, so freewheeling they are in their songs, changing up the set, and over the top performance, which saw by show’s end guitarist Ken Bethea guzzling a drink fed to him by a fan during his frenzied solo on “Most Messed Up,” the title track to the last album that capped the second set.

More of a concern was electricity itself, as lead singer Rhett Miller was getting shocks and bites from his microphone in the middle of the first set, turning his usually sunny demeanor to barked expletives. Roadies and sound guys tried to change some things out to keep the show going but a particularly nasty bite-back meant that their newest song, “Jesus Loves You,” from an album to be released in February, had to be stopped in the middle until everything got fixed.

“It’s those damned Russians!” bassist Murray Hammond drawled. Once it got fixed, Miller was giving apologies and thumbs up to the sound crew. Perhaps because of the impending album, their first in three years, the Old 97’s seemed optimistic about the coming year (which stood out in Washington, where most people are very pessimistic). And there were nods to a couple of the very many music figures who died in 2016.

Hammond is used to singing “Mama Tried” since before they put it on their first album in 1994; but they did so Saturday in memory of its author Merle Haggard. More impressive was their shot at saluting David Bowie, with a song they claimed they never even rehearsed, “Five Years” (though they had played it a few times before). The track from Diamond Dogs seemed fitting for the impending year with its apocalyptic vision, though. Fun was the main point of the spirited set that touched on all parts of its career and was surprisingly different in many ways from the set the night before.

The Old 97’s by now has made peace with the fact it’s a great bar band and any larger ambitions that may have come with the acceptance of their turn-of-the-millennium big label albums Fight Songs and Satellite Rides—and appearances in Jennifer Aniston movies like The Break Up are all in the rear view mirror.

Miller, for his part, seems to reserve his more thoughtful and romantic recordings for his solo albums (indeed, he’s returning to the Hamilton for his own show in February as well). And the band, remarkable in that’s its remained unchanged in personnel despite the sheer velocity of its playing, continues its crazed pace. A big credit must go to drummer Philip Peeples for a lot of this—the guy never slows down the gallup.

A number of its most recent songs from the band’s Most Messed Up play on these set of truths from “Wasted” to the inevitable “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On.” That they pepper the songs more liberally with cuss words shows they had no intention of getting wider airplay anyway. That means a renewed dedication to the earliest aims of the band, bringing a country truth and punk vitality to their American music, and the fans couldn’t be happier, no matter what the clock says.

Won’t Be Home
King of All the World
Melt Show
Drowning in the Days
West Texas Teardrops
Longer Than You’ve Been Alive
Five Years
The New Kid
Jesus Loves You
Big Brown Eyes
Champaign, Illinois
Murder (or a Heart Attack)

Four Leaf Clover
Dance With Me
You Belong to My Heart
Just Like California
Auld Lang Syne
Barrier Reef
Over the Cliff
Rollerskate Skinny
Mama Tried
Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On
Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)
Most Messed Up

Designs on You

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