Cowboy boots are not typical Washingtonian footwear, but they made an appearance at the 9:30 Club last night when the Old 97s blazed through town. The indefatigable alt-country standard-bearers are touring on their tenth studio album, Most Messed Up, and delivered an energetic performance that included old favorites like “Barrier Reef” and “Hitchhike to Rhome” and new offerings such as “Guadalajara.”
This was my fourth Old 97s concert, and the Dallas-based band is in as fine form as ever. The rollicking tunes and Rhett Miller’s wordplay, by turns sincere and sardonic, sweetly wistful and bawdy, are core elements of what we’ve come to love and expect from the band. Most Messed Up is wryly reflective, but not nostalgic — Miller and his crew contemplate middle-age and a life spent on the road, playing songs, getting drunk, and getting up the next day to do it all over again, giving it all they’ve got and hoping it’s enough.
“We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive,” declares Miller in the opening track to Most Messed Up. The landscape of the touring band stretches before us — hotel hallways and dressing rooms, whiskey and beer, and bars and nightclubs. There’s a wink and quip about not getting self-referential, but after twenty-plus years making foot-stomping, hip-swinging, punk-ified country, I think these fellas know they’ve earned the right to some tongue-in-cheek introspection. The age range of the crowd to the sold-out show — from newly minted college graduates to couples in their 50s — was testament to the Old 97s’s staying power through their journey from country rock upstarts to elder statesmen of The Republic of Alt-Country Meets Punk Rock.
The Old 97s are touring this spring with rising star Lydia Loveless. Some of Loveless’s songs are reminiscent of earlier Old 97s (e.g., “Do Right”), and she fits seamlessly as a supporting band. The comparison is a starting point, but it doesn’t capture the compelling Loretta Lynn-meets-Neko Case voice of the Ohio native.
Loveless’s set had plenty of swagger and twang — punk-inflected and country-infused, fortified with a few swigs of Jim Beam. She doesn’t cram her experiences of loss and love into a country princess package. There are plenty of suppliers of anodyne countrified pop, and Lydia Loveless ain’t one of ’em. Her album, Somewhere Else, is the proof.
Over the course of three studio albums, Loveless’s music has evolved from a more classic country aesthetic with banjos, fiddles, and pedal steel, to grittier, more muscular offerings fleshed out with electric guitar and keyboard. From “Really Want To See You” and “Head” to “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” Loveless covers the spectrum, cussing and spitting out sexual innuendo at times, and at other times, talking about love with reference to French poets and lovers Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, who were equal parts brilliant and volatile (spoiler alert: Verlaine really did shoot Rimbaud).
It’s as if Loveless spent her tender years reading highbrow literature and penning lyrics between sets, whiskey shots, and parking lot brawls at bars on the wrong side of town. This is good stuff — give her a listen and buy her music.
In “Somewhere Else,” Loveless laments that The grass is greener on the other side, but it’s tended by wolves. And in “Most Messed Up,” Rhett sneers, I am the most messed up motherfucker in this town. Even if we escape somewhere else, aren’t we still our same messed-up selves? But at least for an evening, in a nightclub or at a bar, we can say to hell with that, because everything is right about the music here, now. So check out Lydia Loveless and the Old 97s on their upcoming tour stops.
Update: Read my interview with Lydia Loveless and see photos from her fall show at DC9.