Rhett Miller packs more boyish charm into one pick-clutching pinkie finger than the entire Justin Bieber empire. And don't get me started on his hair. Apologies for invoking the Bieb, but last night at the Pageant, Miller and the Old 97's delivered an energetic, generous set of uptempo alt-country that was enough to make grown women squeal. If only they would have.
The crowd was expectedly placid during first opener, the Whiskey Folk Ramblers, who hail from Fort Worth, Texas. The all-male, heavily-hatted sextet opened the early, nine-song set with an atmospheric intro that sounded like the soundtrack of a Tarantino Western. This instrumental, featuring trumpet, accordion, upright bass, acoustic and electric guitar, shuffling drums, and impressive whistling by frontman Tyler Rougeux, led into a version of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man." The latter morphed into an even darker gypsy dirge, thanks to Rougeux's low voice. This set the tone for the band's performance: a full, old-timey sound which carries inherent theatricality when played by straight-faced twentysomethings.
Next up was a trio of decidedly not straight-faced (or straightlaced) twentysomethings: Those Darlins, a Tennessee band known around town for its raucous, often unpredictable shows. The band is now officially a quartet -- drummer Linwood Regensburg contributed songwriting to the band's new album, Screws Get Loose, which is due March 29 (as Jessi Darlin reminded us). This was my first time seeing Those Darlins, but everyone seemed on good behavior: The band skipped raunchy stage banter and mainlined at least eight new songs to the audience.
The girls kicked off with single "Be Your Bro," a girl-group garage rock tune on which pixie-haired Jessi chimed in with the almost-signature line, "I just wanna run and play in the dirt with you/ You just wanna stick it in." Nikki, Kelley and Jessi Darlin swapped duties on lead vocals as well as guitar and bass throughout the thirteen-song set. The configuration hinted at the band's sonic future: It brought the "punk" and left the "cow" in Tennessee. Even the hit "Red Light Love," which usually sounds like a rockabilly take on Carter Family-style harmonies, was more of a surf-rock tumble. Though the band didn't play "Wild One" or the country-fried "The Whole Damn Thing," its drunken finger-licking days may not be over yet: After Regensburg apologized to his grandparent in the audience, Those Darlins ripped through a balls-out version of "Fun Stix Party."
Though the Pageant still felt like Night of the Drinking Dead during Those Darlins, the crowd managed to get mildly riled when the Old 97's took the stage. Unassuming and unaffected, Rhett Miller let out a yawp, shook his hair, and the band was off -- galloping through "The Grand Theatre," from last year's album of the same title. Without pause, it was on to "Here's To the Halcyon."
With its power-pop sensibilities, the Old 97's operates under the "don't bore us, get to the chorus" code, but the performance never felt rushed or dialed-in. Not all of the twenty-seven songs played last night were fire-starters, but the band's relentless energy, good humor and consistently strong melodies warranted more enthusiasm than it received from the staid crowd. Some of the biggest crowd reactions, in fact, came during tracks from its most recent album. One such standout was "Champaign, Illinois," which Miller said the band "co-wrote with the great Bob Dylan." Indeed, the song turned the melody of "Desolation Row" into a country swing and presented a Midwestern-dystopian view of the afterlife: "If you die fearin' God/ And painfully employed/ You will not go to heaven / You'll go to Champaign, Illinois."
Recent deviations from the alt-country sound hit the mark on the Britpop-influenced "Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving," but missed on "Dance With Me," from 2008's Blame It On Gravity. On the latter, Miller's attempt to impersonate some sort of south-of-the-border lothario didn't quite work. "Smokers" (perhaps a tribute to the suddenly-smoke-free Halo Bar and its disenfranchised patrons?) featured Murry Hammond on lead vocals and lead guitarist Ken Bethea's high-speed guitar work.
Amidst all the amplified shuffles and Miller's hair-tossing, hip-swinging, straight-ahead delivery, the Old 97's made space for moments of acoustic-based prettiness. The band performed a full-bodied version of rose-colored engagement anecdote "Question," and the bouncing "Big Brown Eyes" from 1996's Wreck Your Life was even sweeter. But Miller's best vocal performance of the night may have been during the second song of the encore, when he provided gorgeous, versatile harmony on Hammond's "Valentine."
The quartet of twang-rock vets started its set with "Here's to the Halcyon" and finished with rollicking "Time Bomb" -- from an ode to a shipwreck to a song about emotional disaster, by a band named for a train wreck. The Old 97's, however, seem unsinkable, and Miller, windmilling on his Hummingbird, appears ageless.
Old 97's Setlist: 1. The Grand Theatre 2. Here's to the Halcyon 3. The Dance Class 4. No Baby I 5. You Smoke Too Much 6. Salome 7. Victoria 8. Champaign, Illinois 9. West Texas Teardrops 10. Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving 11. Stoned 12. Question 13. You Were Born to be in Battle 14. Indefinitely 15. State of Texas 16. Dance With Me 17. Let the Whiskey Take the Reins 18. Smokers 19. Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You) 20. Big Brown Eyes 21. Doreen Encore: 22. Singular Girl (Rhett Miller solo acoustic) 23. Valentine (Murry Hammond solo acoustic) 24. The Fool 25. Jagged 26. Rollerskate Skinny 27. Time Bomb
Those Darlins Setlist: 1. Be Your Bro 2. ??? 3. Waste Away 4. Mystic Mind 5. BUMD 6. $ 7. Prank Call 8. Fatty Needs a Fix 9. Red Light Love 10. Hives 11. Screws Get Loose 12. Night Jogger 13. Fun Stix Party