Upstairs at the Sons, the band shared the room with a big tree. . .
Mary dropped the hint a month ago with an e-mail announcing the Old97s, one of our all-timest favorite bands, would be playing four nights at Dallas' Sons of Hermann Hall to close out the year. With the second show on my night off, December 28th, how could we say no?
We rode over with friends Lance and Emily and were joined by Wes for an Italian dinner nearby in Deep Ellum; Mike met us at the Sons. All of us except Emily were '97s veterans--my first exposure to them was with Mike back in 1998, I believe, in Denton, on an incredibly hot summer night when bassist Murry Hammond collapsed on stage in the small, packed club due to the heat. After a glass of water and a few minutes in front of a fan, he was back on stage. How could you not like a band like that?
So I've probably seen a dozen Old97s shows since then. There've been outdoor venues and little dives, big crowds and little ones. Most of the shows have been positively electric; a few have been duds, but even those had magical moments.
And they're a personable group of guys. One afternoon before an evening show years ago, I was purchasing tickets at the Ridgelea Theater boxoffice in Fort Worth. I was wearing a shirt with a storm-chasing motif upon it; Hammond, there to set up their gear, happened to walk by and asked about it--he was intrigued by storm chasing and storm chasers, having grown up in Boyd, Texas, deep in Tornado Alley. We struck up a conversation, and discovered we both had a strong interest in trains. Not just strong. Make that obsessive. You don't pace Rock Island trains on your bicycle as a 12-year-old making 8mm movies if you're just casual about liking trains. Murry really liked trains. And storms. And traditional country music. So we hit it off well, and still keep in touch.
My favorite band? Probably second only to the Gourds. But not too far behind them. I'll give the 97s the edge in blistering-hot live shows; going to see the Gourds is often like stumbing into a basement jam session fueled by lots of pot and beer. Musically, I think it'd be hard to match the instrumental virtuosity of the Gourds as players. In putting on a live show that leaves the crowd drained and wanting more, though, the 97s blow them out of the water.
I was a single man when I first saw the 97s--unrestricted by the responsibilites of marriage, children, and having to provide for someone beyond myself. In that sense, the arc of my life has paralled that of the members of the band--now we're all married men, and fathers to boot, which has changed me as much as the band. . . new responsibilites, interests, and priorities come to the surface. Bassist Hammond, a dad and a husband, moved to California, and pursues his passions of researching Texas backwoods railroads and writing and recording original compositions steeped in bluegrass, early country, gospel, and hobo music. Lead singer Rhett Miller resides in New York, married with two children, and has released three solo albums, most recently last summer. That leaves Dallasites Ken Bethea and Phil Peeples, lead guitarist and drummer, respectively, holding down the Texas homestead, dabbling in side projects with other local players. The maturing interests of the bandmates probably has something to do with a scarcity of new studio albums in the past few years. . .and I plead ignorance in not buring their latest studio release from 2008, nor Murry's solo CD (which has since been rectified). I've been too busy, I suppose, to keep up with the band much anymore.
So, back to Monday night. Mary and I figured it was high time we'd find a sitter for the kids (thanks to Christie down the street!) and make a night of it and maybe roll the calendar back a few years. And the Sons of Hermann was as perfect a place as any to see them perform, associated as it is (along with the Barley House) as Ground Zero for the band's early days.
The band promised that no song--with the exception of their signature enclose barn-burner "Time Bomb"--would be repeated during the four-night gig. The material spanned their career, not particularly favoring one era over another. Those who wanted a big dose of Dreamy Rhett and his whistful romantic ballads about being Nineteen (Mike would refer to them as "Tiger Beat") were well served by a solo set before the band assembled on stage--serving as quite a contrast to Murry Hammond's own solo performance of quiet, largely introspective original compositions on death, relationships, and trains. At one point, channeling the long-gone past of the Carter Family, Murry accompanied himself on Harmonium. Our party marveled at how two such disparate musicians with styles completely opposite can front a rock band. . .but when one gets right down to it, it's the passion of the music that keeps the band together--now for over 15 years.
Anyway, enough already. It was a great show. And now on with some photos:
Solo Murry in his opening set.
Rhett and Phillip. . .
Sweaty Rhetty. . .
Ken, steady and reliable, trademark white shirt, on the Telecaster. . .
Murry harmonizing while laying down a bass track. . .
One more of Rhett ripping his vocal chords (I'm guessing he'll sound a little rough after four nights in a row. . . )
And a Little About The Sons of Hermann Hall. . .
There aren't many music venues left in Deep Ellum that have spanned. . oh, the last fifteen years! The area has blossomed and crumbled once more. . . places like Trees and the Gypsy Tea Room are no more, and so it's a bit amazing that the Sons of Hermann remains largely untouched since I've been in Texas. Hell, the place is ninety-five years old this year, reigning on the eastern edge of the Ellum at the corner of Elm and Exposition. Now there's a shiny new Dart light rail line across the street, which wasn't there last time I took in a show (the Knitters, 2007). The hall is still a fraternal lodge of the Sons of Hermann organization, and features a funky bar with great greasy hamburgers on the ground floor and the great dance floor upstairs. There's a rumored bowling alley nearby, but I haven't seen it. The Hall hosts weekly swing dance lessons, a jam sessions for folk musicians. It's a link to the past of the area--and thank God, a stable link.