If you haven't made seeing this band a year-end tradition by now, some curmudgeons may advise, "Don't bother." Not because the Old 97's aren't worth it, but because these holiday appearances inspire so much celebratory expectation and draw so many warm bodies that, unless you've been supporting them for years, the whole thing may come off like a touring act hitting town for one evening rather than like a local band come home to roost. It's that same complaint heard by far too many conditional fans: We only like you while you're still ours. Go national, and we ditch you. It's a dismal opposite of fair-weather friends -- the better a musician does, the fewer original fans he retains, and since the band signed with Elektra a couple of years back, Old 97's Dallas shows are teeming with new blood and losing the old-timers. Which isn't quite right, since Rhett Miller and the boys aren't exactly household names in Cleveland or Atlanta, much less Coopersville, Michigan. Why not stay in their corner?
Nonetheless, the 97's have taken so many stages so often, their set is as polished and professional as that of any Major Label Fave, not that there's anything wrong with that. After all, the band's veteran-performer status makes it not nearly as rickety on, say, The Tonight Show as 90 percent of the featured acts. Rhett Miller's been in the public eye since his teenage years, a prep-school boy with an acoustic guitar and a sharp gift for hooks, and he's so used to spotlights by now that he may as well have a camera following him from his alarm clock's first morning buzz to the moment he turns off his bedside lamp. Which, in turn, means there's no such thing as a crappy Old 97's show. "Practice makes perfect" is a dire understatement with these guys.
The songwriting shows up this posit as well. Even if you prefer the knotty assertions of Too Far to Care, the band's 1997 debut, or perhaps its earlier releases to the more winsome tunes scattered across its latest Fight Songs, you have to admit Miller's songcraft, and the band's execution of it is getting more watertight by the year. Some find Fight Songs better than anything the band has done previously, ditching much of the twanged-out pretense and coming back to Miller's poppier roots. Some find it too earnest and mild and want more of the raw energy that inspired such a riot as "Timebomb." Whatever your penchant, the live show erases such discrepancy and democratizes the sounds -- often toward the louder, punchier side of the tracks.
The Deathray Davies opening
If anything, for those who have been following the 97's since their early days of playing tentatively in the corner of Naomi's, this set of year-end performances may be just the thing to get some perspective on a Dallas band's evolution, and to some degree, the evolution of the Dallas music scene. Without us looking, boys have grown up and sounds have grown up, and both of these have moved up and out, the symbolic kid gone off to college (or perhaps moved to Los Angeles). Now he's back for the holidays, for the end of quite a decade, and, man, I know one extended family that's gonna be damned glad to see him. If you dig that sort of traditional celebration.