Black Music Matters Festival

Old 97's

The Grand Theatre Volume One – 2010 (New West Records)

Reviewed by Nelson Gullett

See it on Amazon

For their eighth album, The Old 97's went into the recording process with the intention of capturing all of the fire and fury of their live show in a studio setting. Anyone who has seen Rhett Miller and the band play live knows what a lofty goal that was. The Old 97's have been burning down stages for years with their signature mix of energetic pop, rock, and twang.

From the opening salvo of the album starting title track, it's clear Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond and drummer Phillip Peeples were successful in finding their live energy. Snares crash and guitars crunch as Miller sings of The Grand Theatre, the venue in Leeds, England where he wrote the track during a 2009 solo tour of Europe. In fact, most of the album was written during that tour while Miller opened for Steve Earle. Miller says he learned a lot by watching the master songwriter work his craft night after night. You can hear pieces of Earle's influence throughout on songs like the broken hearted shuffle of Let the Whiskey Take the Reins.

Not all of the songs were pulled from Miller's European experience. As always, Hammond contributes a couple of tracks, including You Were Born to Be in Battle, the song Hammond says was his attempt to capture a 1960's Johnny Cash vibe.

Then there's Champagne, Illinois, one of the highlights and a song Miller says was born out of a lonely, late night drive through the Midwest. Fighting sleep, Miller amused himself by rewriting the lyrics to Bob Dylan's Desolation Row. He sat on the song for several years before working up the courage to approach Dylan's management for permission to record it. After reading the new lyrics, Dylan gave his approval, and the song appears as a Miller/Dylan co-write.

After a slight misstep a few years back with "Drag it Up," The Old 97's have once again found their stride and their sound with this album and 2008's "Blame it on Gravity." The best news may be that "The Grand Theatre: Volume 2" is already set for release in 2011.