Won’t Be Home Tonight: Banditos + Old 97’s

First, the young upstarts known as Banditos lit up the club with raw, bluesy, punkified, tambourine-shaking, banjo-laced rock. Then the Old 97’s — venerated statesmen of the Republic of Alt-Country Meets Punk Rock — took us hip-shaking, innuendo-slinging, windmill-strumming into the wee hours of morning.


Wide-eyed, white lines
On down the road I slide
God willing and the creek don’t rise
Well, I won’t be home tonight …

First, the young upstarts known as Banditos lit up the club with raw, bluesy, tambourine-jangling southern rock. Then Old 97’s  — the venerated statesmen of the Republic of Alt-Country Meets Punk — took us hip-shaking, innuendo-slinging, and windmill-strumming into the wee hours. It was one of those nights when you wanna say, “oh, to hell with it,” pack a bag, and follow the bands on down the road.

The six-member Banditos hail from Birmingham and operate out of Nashville. If you’re looking for new songs to play between cuts of Alabama Shakes and Drive-By Truckers, look no further — all that well-muscled, gritty, soulful goodness is right here.

Three vocalists (Mary Beth Richardson, Stephen Pierce, Corey Parsons) alternate leads and harmonies, producing a powerful core sound that’s framed by guitar (Jeffery Salter) and banjo mojo (Pierce), and propelled by the rhythms of Randy Wade (drums) and Danny Vines (bass).

Add to this mix the band’s hair-tossing, foot-stomping, kinetic stage presence, and you’re in for a helluva good time.

That evening at the 9:30 Club, Richardson’s energy seemed to know no bounds as she stomped, clapped, and let loose her smoky wail. Comparisons to Janis Joplin dominated the floor after songs like “No Good,” which showcase the controlled burn that is Richardson’s voice.

Between the ragged laments and the reckless, raucous tunes like “Still Sober (After All These Beers),” Banditos showed that they make the quieter songs just as riveting as the uptempo ones.

And so at the end of the set, when Richardson held up her tambourine and announced: “We have time for one more — do you wanna hear a slow one or a fast one?” the response was lost amidst the approving whoops and hollers from the crowd.

I think all that noise translated as: “Slow or fast, it doesn’t matter — just keep playing, pretty please.”

Banditos is in the final stretch of their tour with Old 97’s (dates here). If you haven’t had a chance to soak in one of their high-energy sets live, check out their tunes (digital/vinyl) — and this time next year, brag to your pals about how you knew about this band before everyone else did.

A pal recently shared a graffitied message that read: “You’re not strangers if you like the same band.” And Old 97’s fans really do become a musical family. When I introduced myself between sets (“Hey, how are ya, I’m Vivian–“), the gal I was speaking to cracked a big smile and immediately said, “As in Victoria‘s Vivian?” referring to the song name (Victoria), which the band’s glossary explains is an “alias for an ex-girlfriend of one Rhett Miller. Actual name: Vivian.”

This band was one of my first music loves. I grew up near Dallas, where Old 97’s was formed. They were pioneers of alt-country in the 90’s, alongside Uncle Tupelo, Drive-By Truckers, and Whiskeytown. In frontman Rhett Miller’s words: We’ve been doin’ this longer than you’ve been alive / Propelled by some mysterious drive. After two decades’ worth of hotel hallways and dressing rooms, whiskey and beer, bars and nightclubs, there’s a wink and quip about getting self-referential — but with all the trials of the road and the joy they’ve brought us, Old 97’s have more than earned the right to some tongue-in-cheek introspection.

The rollicking tunes and Rhett’s wordplay are, in a word, addictive. The lyrics are by turns sincere and sardonic, sweetly wistful and bawdy. The band’s most recent album, Most Messed Up (digital/vinyl), sees Rhett and crew (Ken Bethea (guitar), Murry Hammond (bass), Philip Peeples (drums)) contemplating 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 still enough.

With guest appearances by Tommy Stinson (The Replacements, Guns N’ Roses) and Jon Rauhouse (Neko Case) on lap steel, the 12-track record shows that the band hasn’t slowed down one bit, though they’ve laid off the hard stuff, that shit kills.

Since the band has been meditating on life in music, I did some reflecting of my own — viz., my life listening to their music. Old 97’s fourth studio album, Fight Songs, came out my sophomore year of high school. I distinctly remember spring days in friends’ cars, singing “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)” while driving aimlessly around town. Gas was so cheap, and the future felt as wide open as those Texas roads. I may have been in the minority for not crushing hard on Rhett (not hard … only in moderation), because Murry’s twangy depth when he sings lead in “Valentine” — gah. (See also “W. Tx Teardrops.”)

Fast forward a few years and shift the lens east, to New York City. I remember a rainy summer afternoon (was it down on South Street Seaport?) when the storm forced an outdoor show into a high school auditorium. It kinda felt like Battle of the Bands, except this band had already won and was already criss-crossing the country, windmill-strumming its way into wayward hearts.

I remember chilly autumn nights here in DC, standing on line, waving hello to the 9:30 staff because my camera and I go to enough shows that this club has become a second home. (How many more? Time ticks on; each show feels more precious.)

I remember Vandaveer opening for Old 97’s last New Year’s Eve. I recall, in the quiet moments after the crowds dispersed, hearing snippets of conversation as Rhett and Mark Heidinger (Vandaveer’s frontman) shared stories — as musicians, of course, but also as dads.

“This is probably the fourteenth or fifteenth time we’ve played the 9:30 Club,” Rhett said the other night. “We love it here. And we remember the old club. There were rats! We kinda miss the rats.”

The band, older. Me, older. The jokes, the stories, the references to past shows, all reflecting a shared history.

Life doesn’t get easier, but I think getting older means learning to appreciate music in a different way: seeing the community it engenders, the chance it gives us to create and share — a sort of love, a kind of home, a type of meaning.

I hope in the winter of life, whatever that looks like, music will still be a part of my days. Earlier this week, the New York Times published a fascinating piece, The Lonely Death of George Bell. Out of all those photos, there was one of Mr. Bell’s neatly-labeled, alphabetized cassette tapes. I like thinking that however solitary his life may have been in those final months, however it was all unraveling, that there was still music.

All things must end — but some ends are followed by encores. And for every time Old 97’s plays “Timebomb” and Rhett leaps off the drums, if I’m in town, I want to be there. I hope I’ll see you there, too.

Sign up for the Old 97’s mailing list so you know when they’re in your town (tour dates here).

Author: Vivian Wang

A gal with a camera and a penchant for deconstructing lyrics. Know of a band I should be listening to? Need press or concert shots? Let's chat: lithophyte.photo [at] gmail [dot] com.

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