Written by Traci Rogers
Jan 17, 2012 at 08:00 PM
ImageHouston’s House of Blues’ audience was hit by a train Tuesday night when Dallas’ Old 97’s rolled in to kick off their 2012 tour along with opening performances by The O’s and a special solo treat from 97’s front man Rhett Miller who, earlier this fall, had released his Interpreter:  Live at Largo.

The Old 97’s charged full steam ahead, opening with “Doreen” which tempted many from their first floor and balcony seats  to elbow a path through the standing room only crowd to get a closer feel for the highly charged foursome who held complete locomotive control over its fans.  I knew the guys felt welcomed in Houston when bassist Murry Hammond shouted his signature “Thanks Everybody!” in his north Texas drawl.

Miller and Hammond formed the band with lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Phillip Peeples in 1993.  Considering Hammond’s love affair with the railroad/train industry, the band’s namesake is in honor of the Danville, Virginia train wreck of 1903, the most famous of its kind in U. S. history.

The under-the-radar/radio alternative country band, well known for its Texas twang-meets- cowpunk vibes, cultivated a loyal, live-show following, not only in the Lone Star state, but across the nation as well.

My fellow concert attendee Andy Simms, 41, of north Houston summarized the band’s sound as “a musical orgasm . . . They are able to change like The Beatles and develop and grow.  You take two Beatles albums; they don’t sound the same, but you still know it’s The Beatles.  Popular bands today repeat the same sound, the same concept every album, yet they lack the talent to create anything new.  The Old 97’s come up with something new and different every time and it’s great!”

ImageAfter performing the sing-along “A State of Texas” anthem with a sea of reverently raised beer cans, the Don Juanesque Miller flattered the Houston audience.

“I know why YOU’RE the coolest in Houston.  YOU’RE HERE ON A F#@%ING TUESDAY NIGHT!”

“I hear your sacrifice,” Hammond responded to a whistling and amused audience.

I was fortunate to have won tickets for the best seats in the House for one of the best live acts in the nation from Dylan Moore’s Tupelo Grease Co.  Moore’s retro-rockabilly apparel company is one that clearly is inspired by and committed to supporting live and independent music  like the 97’s.  My guest and I felt like rock stars, sitting centered behind the soundboard with the lovely Elizabeth, our waitress, who quickly catered to our libationary requests.

Elizabeth didn’t seem to mind when Jim Weekley, a fellow 97’s fanatic in the neighboring party, and I were playing games of Who-Can-Sing-the-Loudest and Do-You-Know-THIS-97’s Trivia-Tidbit.  I thought I was THE 97’s expert in Houston, until Weekley humbled me a few times.

Nevertheless, I recovered my meaningless trivia points from my opponent when the band set off on “Champagne, Illinois”.

“Did you know that’s a Bob Dylan tune?” I asked Weekley.

ImageIn a March 31, 2011 National Public Radio interview, the ageless Miller explains the process of how the band got the legal nod to record their new lyrics over the melody of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.  In the end, the legendary folkie was so impressed, Miller says, “. . . that he gave us half the publishing [royalties].”   Surely die-hard fans must wonder why the Fab-Texas-Four rarely get the songwriting kudos from famed critics even after one like Bob Dylan pats their backs.

“By request!”  Hammond announced to preface the 97’s version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”.  The southern, honky-tonk themes of mamas, trains and prisons struck a familiar, yet strangely comforting note with all of us.  Everyone I observed could sing with the band and raise hands right on cue, punctuating “I turned 21 in prison do-in’ life without parole . . .”   True to form, Hammond concluded the tune with a yodel that is comparable to the late train enthusiast Jimmy Rodgers.

Lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Phillip Peeples remain quiet, musical geniuses within the band.  But we’ve often heard the rumors about those strong, silent types.  When they’re ready to tear it down, get out of their way!  And that’s just what Bethea and Peeples did!

With mischievous facial expressions during “Please Hold on While the Train is Moving,” Bethea effortlessly personified the rhythm of a locomotive, whether the song was decelerating or returning to a rapid boil.  We all may as well have bent over for a hard-driving kick in the rear during “Won’t Be Home No More”.  Thanks, Ken!  I needed that!

Likewise, Peeples tattooed “Every Night is Friday Night” with his initials.  He shined brightest during the encore song “Four Leaf Clover”.  I’m surprised that his drum set hand any remaining skin at the conclusion of the bad-luck song.  He played as if he had just gained liberation from a straight jacket!

ImageSo while waving goodbye to the New Orleans– bound caboose, I wondered what lay ahead for the Old 97’s.  If they have plans, they are tight-lipped about it.  Considering they are still diligently promoting The Grand Theatre (Volumes I and II) albums, my expectations might be too hastened.   Miller, however, told the Houston audience that while he is promoting his Interpreter:  Live at Largo, a live performance of his favorite cover songs, he also is working on another studio album which will include songs he wrote while opening for Steve Earle during a European tour a few years ago.

This past August, Miller told Rolling Stone how the Euro-Earle experience had inspired his songwriting, particularly “This song I wrote that I think is so funny . . . like a Shel Silverstein song with lots of cussing. . .”  Miller’s yet-to-be released number may land itself on his next studio solo CD, or fans might discover it on the 97’s next endeavor.  The final decision is any fan’s guess.   Since I have always enjoyed the humor in Johnny Cash’s coverage of Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” I can’t wait to hear what Miller has composed!  Bring on the belly laugh, Rhett!

We’re waiting fellas!  We look forward to boarding your train the next time we hear that lonesome whistle blow in Houston.