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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.