Here's one thing we all can agree on: Old 97's bandleader Rhett Miller looks younger than his 38 years. Rock star bravado in an alt-country package, Miller played the arm-swinging, hair-thrashing, jump-off-the-drum-riser role with aplomb Thursday night at the Vogue.
His band, formed in Dallas in 1993, powered through 90 minutes of music, mixing a healthy portion of beyond-up-tempo older tunes with more laid-back and well-rounded songs from the 2008 Old 97's release Blame It on Gravity and Miller's 2009 self-titled album.
Following 30-minute solo sets by both Miller and bassist Murry Hammond, the Old 97's hustled on stage and cranked up "Won't Be Home" from 2004's Drag It Up. Flashing Telecaster guitars, Miller and guitarist Ken Bethea set the tone, powered by Bethea's buzzsaw playing cranked up in the mix. Miller sported a Fogerty-esque red shirt, halfway unbuttoned, and was a natural draw for the audience eye. "Dance With Me" was messy like a not-too-drunk Replacements performance and bordered on frantic.
The wall of guitar and pop sensibilities of the newer "No Baby I" replaced the thrash-and-bash of the punkier old material. For the new stuff, they ripped a sound from Petty that outdid Petty himself. "Roller Skate Skinny," from 2001's Satellite Rides, is kissed by great chord changes that can be as rough or as pop-influenced as the guys want to play it. Thursday at the Vogue, they straddled the line perfectly.
That sophistication or bi-polarity explains why the Old 97's haven't become more popular and continue to fall into the category of a critical favorite. They're punk. They're obviously familiar with Texas country. They're a garage rock band with '60s pop echoes. They're also an unquestioned early influence in the alt-country genre, along with Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and Drive-By-Truckers. I even hear some Jason and the Scorchers sounds in them, especially when Miller yelps and yells and screams.