Like many of their contemporaries, it’s an anniversary year for alt-country legends Old 97’s. They’ve been making music and visiting clubs and theaters for 25 years. Or, as lead singer Rhett Miller says in a recent song, “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive.”
At 47, Miller certainly shows no signs of slowing down. With his youthful looks and long hair fully intact, he strums his guitar with his patented windmill move, yelps with youthful abandon and leaps from the drum risers with surprising grace. As a bit of a fanboy myself, I’ve seen them countless times and have never been disappointed.
It’s a rare occurrence for a band to last this long with the original lineup intact. Guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples have all been stable figures and enormous contributors to the Old 97’s machine. Although they’ve grown and, in Miller’s and Hammond’s cases, left Dallas, the band remains the same four dudes who started out jamming in an old apartment off Greenville Avenue.
Saturday was the band’s third iteration of its County Fair. As with the previous two, Main Street Garden was filled with revelers there to see a stacked lineup of bands and to enjoy the carnival atmosphere. There were corn dogs, cotton candy, pop-a-shot games, face painting and giant inflatable basketballs and soccer balls. And, of course, there was the famous Ferris wheel perched at the end of the park, towering over the festivities.
After a downright cold start to the morning, the weather turned out nice, if a little too windy at times. As the crowd meandered through the gates and settled onto the lawn, the music kicked off at noon with a spirited performance by Bastards of Soul. The band used the early time slot to its advantage with a scintillating mix of soulful originals and cover songs serving as the perfect call-to-action for an eventful day.
Next up was Jaime Wyatt, a rising country singer from Los Angeles with a classic voice and a pesky spark to her songwriting. She and her band ripped through a good portion of last year’s Felony Blues, an autobiographical collection of songs with a title that's no accident. Wyatt served eight months in prison after robbing her drug dealer, a fact that she casually included in some in-between song banter.
Longtime Heartless Bastards frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom followed Wyatt’s set. She just released her debut solo album, and she whirled her five-piece band, which included guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo and Denton resident Aaron McClellan on bass, through a fevered rendering of several of that album’s tracks. It was probably the most raucous set of the day.
The Bottle Rockets are alt-country kindred spirits to the Old 97’s. Hailing from outside of St. Louis, the band has traveled the same circuits, played the same stages and graced the covers of the same fanzines as the 97’s. Loquacious frontman Brian Henneman probably has many entertaining stories to share about those long-gone days.
However, the Bottle Rockets are still carrying the torch, releasing new music and entertaining their hardcore fans (there were some rowdy ones positioned up front) with classic tracks like “Indianapolis” and “Radar Gun,” two tracks that garnered the greatest applause. They could’ve easily played all night, but alas, their short set ended right as the energy was peaking.
Country music returned in the form of Paul Cauthen. The baritone-voiced Texan worked his way through a good portion of his stellar catalog, touching on heartfelt, old-school country gems and gospel songs. Dallas has treated Cauthen well over the past few years, a fact he acknowledged several times throughout his set. We’re likely not too far down the road from seeing him headline some of the bigger stages in town.
When Bob Dylan was asked last year if there were any new singers who interested him, he mentioned Valerie June. The Tennessee native makes a unique blend of soul, blues and funk all wrapped up in a rustic Appalachian blanket. While this sounds like a lot, her approach, anchored by insightful and compact songwriting, makes things work. Her song “Working Woman Blues” is a great example and a starting point to check out. Onstage late Saturday afternoon, she put on quite the show with spirited performances, some quality give-and-take banter and whole lot of good music that worked the crowd into an energetic dance party.
Next up onstage were The Mavericks, a band that needed little introduction but nevertheless received a hearty one from Rhett Miller. Standing in front of a nine-piece band, lead singer and guitarist Raul Malo delivered a strong, workmanlike performance that dug deep into the catalog and mined the depths for an expert blend of Tex-Mex, traditional country and rockabilly.
Though strong and memorable, the band’s set list was perhaps too particular for some. Several folks were overheard grumbling about the omission of some of their favorite songs. You can’t please everybody, and they did play “La Bamba” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
As energy levels dwindled, it was time for the final pre-Old 97’s performance, a slot that fell to Los Angeles indie folk outfit Lord Huron. With a new album out this week, the band has a busy year ahead. The members have been road warriors for a while now, though, and their practice has paid off. Their sound filled the cavernous lawn with gritty guitars, spacey sound collages and even a little theremin. They debuted a few of the new tracks and made room to include favorites like “Ends of the Earth” and “Time to Run."
At long last, it was time for the festival hosts to take the stage, which they did to rapturous applause and wasted no time getting into things. The one-two punch of “Barrier Reef” and “I Don’t Want to Die in this Town” kicked things off and kept the momentum going for the hour-plus set.
We heard favorites like “St. Ignatius,” “Question,” “West Texas Teardrops,” “Doreen” and “Big Brown Eyes.” We saw Bethea leap back and forth onstage swinging the guitar like a maniac. We got the “all business” Peoples keeping time on the drum kit and watching over things from the back. We even got some patented Hammond jokes and a cameo duet from Wyatt. In all, it was a crowd-pleasing, vintage Old 97’s set.
With another successful event in the books, it seems likely that things will be back up and running for another go-round next April. Start saving the dates.