“I love me some Old 97’s,” is a phrase I’ve heard quite a bit over the last few years. Languoring in the cactus tall alt-country shadow of bands like Wilco, this Dallas, Texas band has remained more true to its honky-tonk twangy roots and boozy beginnings than any of the others in the bunch. With Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco ventured into a kind of experimentation that the labels weren’t looking for, while the 97’s slowly gained die hard fans without a vast change in style, and without sacrificing their dynamic live sound. Alive & Wired is the new documentation of that kind of live show, a revved up version of the classic country rock sounds that made labels like Sun famous. They, forgive the punny reference, walk the line between the two genres so well, that I’ve seen most record stores place their CD’s in the rock section, while iTunes is classifying it as country. The truth and beauty lie somewhere in between.
Funnily enough, Wilco came out with a double live CD just after the Old 97’s, just to prove that the parallels keep coming. Rhett Miller did a solo album, just as Tweedy has his numerous side projects (strangely no solo work on CD). Ok, so maybe there aren’t that many parallels, but you can’t blame a guy for trying. One of the big differences is in the crowd’s reaction to the separate acts. While Wilco either casually strums its way through favorites or piles on the feedback, making some wince and others gleefully grin, the Old 97’s are like a steam locomotive gone out of control, as if someone had spilled nitro into the coal furnace, ladies in petticoats hanging on for dear life as the train careens around sharp bends, clinging to one track as it leans to the outside before righting itself for the long home stretch. The Old 97’s fans eat it up, cheering on every boozy turn.
For Alive & Wired, the Old 97’s recorded two shows on consecutive nights at a club in Texas. The thirty songs make for an eclectic mix from the band’s six album career, mostly evenly distributed, with a slight leaning towards their best and best reviewed album, Too Far to Care, and with five songs each appearing from their first release, Hitchhike to Rhome and most recent record, Drag It Up. This much raucous entertainment might just be too much for one sitting, but dispersed over time, this double CD set can be downright knee-slapping, toe-tapping, arm-flapping fun.
If Alive & Wired proves anything, it’s that this band has not lost any of its country roots, punk edge, or explosive live performance standards. There are some bands that sound great on record but just have no dynamism on stage. Then there are those that are great live bands but can’t translate it when in the studio. The Old 97’s do both well, and treat each as separate existences. Guitarist Ken Bethea writes in the liner notes about being a `smoking live band’ and distinguishes that difference between the studio and the stage. He then begins to describe what he loves about playing live, and essentially describes why this live set is so worthy, “I love being in a high-octane, sweaty, crunchy, oft times out of tune monster that swings and lurches from gig to gig, even from song to song.” The future of the band may be up in the air right now, as Rhett Miller embarks on another solo album and the rest of the band is starting to raise families, but Alive & Wired is one hell of a send off if it ever comes to that.
Wilco- Kicking Television
Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers- Believe
Whiskeytown- Faithless Street