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Old 97's mix country and rock

Paradise, Boston, June 24, 1999

By Jeffrey B. Remz

BOSTON - "Fight Songs," the new rock-oriented disc by Old 97's, is a departure from previous more countrified flavorings.

But while lead singer Rhett Miller has talked about the change as a natural musical evolution of the group, in concert at least, they showed their country originations are never far behind.

Now, you would not have guessed that from the first chunk of the very healthy two-hour show before a healthy, supportive crowd.

Miller et al were in rock mode, powering through a number of songs from "Fight Songs." The dB's are an apt reference point sound-wise, meaning there were a good amount of pop hooks to the songs ("Lonely Holiday').

But, in reality, the country sound, is never far behind, even when they rock out. That is particularly true thanks to bassist Murry Hammond, who gives a distinct country feel to almost all songs.

About half-way through the regular set, Old 97's switched gears, clearly going for the country sound of their Bloodshot Records days. At times, the sound was more country rock, but they had not forgotten their roots.

Guitarist Ken Bethea kept a relatively low profile, but when the occasion arose, he informed the song with the right punch.

Miller is a capable front man. Good looking, not taking himself too seriously and with a sense of humor (he dedicated one song to the group's current tour bus, Bessie, and another to Vanna, the group's old means of transportation).

Hammond also sang lead on a few songs (perhaps most interesting on Bill Monroe's "My Sweet Blue Eyed Darlin'"), but he was no match for Miller.

Miller sings well enough, though he often fell victim to oversinging no matter what genre the song was. The songs would be more effective with a more straightahead delivery.

But at least they didn't play it by the numbers. Two lengthy encores of 40-plus minutes clearly was not rehearsed with Miller going from band member to band member to pick the songs. Among them , the leadoff from "Fight Songs, "Jagged," "Big Brown Eyes" and "Victoria" from their country days plus a Bob Wills cover.

Old 97's may be on a different track musically, but they combine the best of both worlds for an effective presentation and satisfying evening.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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