Old 97’s “Graveyard Whistling”

I remember the first time I saw the Old 97’s live. It must have been around 2009, 2010, down at South Street Seaport for some god-awful summer festival. Usually, the acts they get are subpar to subzero, but I was impressed by the Old 97’s. Following the show, the first song I downloaded was “Question,” a saccharine story of engagement. As the owner of many Rhett Miller solo and Old 97’s albums, I now know “Question” was more a “Rhett Miller” song than an “Old 97’s” song. If you’ve studied Rhett and the band as I have, you know what I mean.

Their new album, Graveyard Whistling, came out late last week, and it’s worth a listen if not a purchase. Anyone who loves Too Far to Care, a 1997 release that plays like a greatest hits album, will fall in love with Graveyard Whistling from the very first note.

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Old 97’s, Brooklyn, 2016

The album kicks off with a shimmering cymbal and a Texan guitar’s narrative in “I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town.” Rhett Miller’s vocals layer in, a perfect timber, “How did I get here? / Where was I headed? / You know I can’t recall.” At the chorus, the song picks up with a giddy-up drum beat, staccato and brief, as the song hurtles toward the next stanza, omitting the drums altogether: “I’ll entertain you / But I can’t save you / Although I’m doing the best I can / I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n roll band.” I’ll pause for a moment on this note. (No pun intended.) The Old 97’s are frequently cited as the darling of alt-country, but I don’t get it. Sure, I can hear country-inflected guitar solos and the drum beat–albeit played faster–of a many country song before. But this is a rock ‘n roll band. Listen to the singer.

While we’re here, I’ll note that most of the songs are written by the Old 97’s, but a few feature additional contributors. “Bad Luck Charm,” track two, is one of them. Co-written by Caitlin Rose–daughter of the legendary Liz Rose, aka co-writer of “White Horse” by the beloved Lady Swift–“Bad Luck Charm” focuses yet again on Rhett’s outsider/underdog status. He sings in the chorus, “If you cross your fingers, you can hang me on your arm / Baby I’m a bad luck charm.” This isn’t new material. That less-than status permeates his music. Think of “Four Leaf Clover” (“I’m still a drunk, I’m still a loser / Living in a lousy neighborhood”) or even “Wish the Worst” (“I guess I’m a loser, but I like being miserable / Swimming in sin”). He’s either a cynic or he doesn’t own a mirror. Could be both. I digress.

It’s challenging to select just a few standout hits, when I truly love so many of the tracks on Graveyard Whistling. The album’s namesake crops up in “Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls” in which Rhett sings, “I never was good at talkin’ / Graveyard whistlin’s more my thing / I got 96 tears and only one wedding ring.” This song takes up the “99 Problems” idea from Jay-Z with a twist and sets it to a fast beat and a fiddle on the backdrop: “I got 99 problems to be thankful for / But a half a clue ain’t one.”

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Rhett Miller, Portland, OR, 2015

If I had to pick two favorites, “All Who Wander” and “She Hates Everybody” may top the list, although “Jesus Loves You” is up there, too. The Old 97’s have been tourin’ talk shows playing “All Who Wander,” and it’s no wonder. It’s a moody, quiet, and sentimental tune with a catchy chorus: “All who wander are not lost / Just me / Just me / Signals and wires both get crossed / Remember back when you got lost with me.” Here’s Rhett once again positioning himself as second to the rest, as being “lost.” In “She Hates Everybody,” Rhett sings about a girl who’s a “misanthrope”–that he and his co-writers were able to work this word into a song deserves all the stars, in my opinion. It’s a clever tune about someone I know (maybe me, but who’s counting: “It was so hard to win her heart / It’s hard as a rock except for one little part.”). “Jesus Loves You” feels like a song by Alex Battles (“Jesus Wore Flip Flops”), my favorite local songwriter. Neither song necessarily undermines Jesus, but both consider the similarities (and differences) man has to the Son of God. In the Old 97’s song, Rhett sings, “You can talk to him all night / But I’m right here / He makes wine from water / But I just bought you a beer.” In another stanza, the song goes, “I’m not discountin’ the sermon on the mount an’ / Oh when I was little you know they dunked me in the fountain.” Very funny.

Rhett’s voice sounds better than ever across the entire album. His penchant for vibrato is on full display, and his ability to transform his voice from mellow crooning to an impassioned expression within just a few lines continues to impress. The band isn’t too shabby either. Ken’s guitar playing is fantastic, while Philip on drums and Murry on bass (and his own song, “Nobody”–very good) are excellent.

In my opinion, Graveyard Whistling is the best Old 97’s album in 10 years. I liked Most Messed Up, and The Grand Theatre (Volume 1 and Volume 2) albums were pretty good. These three albums had a handful of good songs apiece, but Graveyard Whistling is solid from beginning to end. And, when I put my Old 97’s music on shuffle, the new Graveyard Whistling songs fit right in alongside “Doreen” and “Barrier Reef.”

If you haven’t caught the band on TV yet, have a listen to the new album. Even just a minute or so will convince you this one’s worth buying.

 

Brooklyn Bowl + Old 97’s (Sorta)

MDP and I bought tickets for the Old 97’s show at Brooklyn Bowl about a month ago. So, when the day came, I was pretty excited to get there. Although the doors weren’t slated to open until 8 pm for the show, we knew we could grab a bite at the bowling alley beforehand. I took the L train to Bedford, hopped off and made my way over to Brooklyn Bowl, which is located on Wythe between North 11 and North 12 streets.

brooklyn bowl calamari

calamari

My walk was pleasant. I hadn’t realized Williamsburg possessed such charm. I suppose I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to the neighborhood since I was in college, and that may explain my surprise at the cute eateries and shops that lined Bedford. Anyway, I turned down North 11 Street to cut over to Wythe, and locked eyes with a gentleman who was sampling a beer in an outdoor café. He looked familiar, but I kept walking—that is, until I realized it was Rhett Miller, front man for the Old 97’s.

My internal dialogue went something like this:

Should I talk to him?

Should I bother him?

What if it isn’t him?

What if he thinks I’m crazy?

After about five minutes of hemming and hawing, I walked over to him and said, “Hey, you look familiar. Are you Rhett Miller?” He smiled and nodded, and stood up to introduce himself. “I’m Rhett,” he said. I know, I thought, but told him my name instead. “You’re awesome. I love your music,” I said, sounding 16 years old. I added that I was going to be attending his show later in the evening, and he said he was planning to sing a duet with the opening act. “I’ll be there at 8 then,” I told him and blurted out “enjoy” for some reason.

What an evening this is going to be! I thought, as I made my way over to Wythe.

brooklyn bowl fried chicken dinner

fried chicken dinner

Well, the night took an unexpected turn. Apparently, Brooklyn Bowl had a power outage earlier in the day. It didn’t occur to me until after I tried to unsuccessfully order a burger that the lack of power might affect the show. It did.

But before that realization struck, MDP and I sampled some delectable food from Brooklyn Bowl. First of all, it’s worth mentioning that this place is pretty awesome. It’s a huge space with a stage, bowling lanes and a restaurant. Oh, and the bathrooms are clean and pristine, up a flight. They have Brooklyn Brewery beers on tap, and Blue Ribbon food (whether that means the recipes or the chefs are trained a la Blue Ribbon is a mystery).

We started our meal with the fried calamari, which was crisp and delicious, and came with fried jalapenos mixed in with the octopus. It also had a lemon and cayenne mayo and an authentically included lemon wedge on the side. Fantastic!

When I learned the burger was not an option due to the down grill, I opted for the fried chicken dinner, with mixed pieces (dark and white meat). It came with the best collard greens I’ve ever had. Thick pieces of bacon were mixed in with them and they had a perfect flavor. The mashed potatoes were so-so, but the chicken was decent. The fry on the chicken was very flavorful, but I’m sorry to say that the flavor did not seep down into the bird’s flesh as it does at many other places. The dish also came with a hefty slice of white bread, which I rather enjoyed.

MDP got the fried catfish sandwich, and he seemed to enjoy it very much. I’m no fan of catfish, so I didn’t sample a bite.

We waited around for about 40 minutes until we heard through the grapevine that the show was canceled. But I happened to notice Rhett traipse down the stairs and into the back of the stage. He was carrying his acoustic guitar. Suddenly, he was gone, and I thought, He must have gone outside. There we went, and we found Rhett singing on the sidewalk of Wythe, outside of Brooklyn Bowl.

rhett miller outside brooklyn bowl

rhett miller

He played around seven songs, much to the crowd’s delight. We all sang along to “Wish the Worst” and “Big Brown Eyes” and Rhett even did a few tunes from the new album, such as the title track “Most Messed Up” and Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On.” Mostly, Rhett sang/shouted the lyrics, but he still sounded great.

“I have to stop singing or else I think I may never sing again,” he shouted to the screaming crowd of about 30.

UPDATE! Saw the Old 97’s today at Lincoln Center and got a much better shot of them!

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So, definitely go to Brooklyn Bowl. But make sure the power’s working if you’re planning to see a show or bowl. It’s good eatin’, for sure, but if you’re making the trek to Williamsburg, you’re going to want to do more than eat good food.

Brooklyn Bowl

61 Wythe Ave. (bet. North 11 and North 12 streets)

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Take the L to Bedford and walk a few blocks west then north.

Rhett Miller at City Winery

“My name’s Stuart Ransom Miller. I’m a serial lady killer,” sang Rhett Miller last night at City Winery–a cool, sophisticated venue–with the whole of his audience acting as an enthusiastic back up singer. If the crowd seemed older, well, there’s no hiding that Rhett Miller has gotten older, too—and wiser, and better looking, if that was even possible. In fact, Rhett’s handsome looks come across more acutely in person than in these photos (thank me later).

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The front man of the sometimes called “rockabilly” Old 97’s, Rhett wore a white shirt with fine detailing and tight black jeans over his long, lanky legs that he likes to shake around during his performances. He waves his hips around so much, he actually creates a certain rhythm with his gyrations to complement his expert guitar playing. He swings his right arm like a helicopter blade over his guitar and play-play-play-plays the chords. And he bangs his head during instrumental solos, exuding a “lost in the music” vibe.

He started the show with a song off his latest album, The Dreamer, called “Lost Without You,” a beautiful melody. He also played a number of Old 97’s favorites, including “Barrier Reef,” “Timebomb,” “Solame,” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Just Like California,” and, of course, “Question,” taking the songs in quick succession, pausing just a moment or two and cutting off applause to get the next tune started. All of his singing showcased the unique timber of his voice, and, on some songs, he even broke out into a little bit of vibrato. I was impressed, to say the least.

rhett with david wax band

As the show went on, Rhett’s once-pristine shirt became increasingly drenched and his hair likely sent drops of sweat into the front row of patrons as he head-banged away. He shared with the crowd that he sometimes—and rather innocently—lifts lines and melodies from unsuspecting (or sometimes suspecting, in the case of Bob Dylan) writers. His song “Champaign, Illinois” features a Bob Dylan melody, and you probably never knew that—well, now you know.

The show was awesome, and the hostess told me that Rhett plays City Winery pretty often. I guess that won’t be happening any time soon as he mentioned that he’s going to Texas in the coming days to work on a new Old 97’s album. I suppose we’ll just have to see him when he returns.