"Hiy'all doin' St. Louis?" lead singer Rhett Miller shouted in greeting to the packed theatre. In response to the fans' "wooooooo!" Rhett laughed and said, "Yeah me too, me too. It's nice to be back in St. Louis." It is nice, Rhett!
"Do you want to dance with me," fans of the Old 97's? Apparently, yes, you do. Following Whiskey Folk Ramblers and Those Darlins, we rocked out last night to the Old 97's most recent return, though Rhett was sure to remind St. Louisans of their long history in this town: "We've always had great shows here, all the way back to Cicero's and the Hi Pointe." He reminisced, "I always bumped my head on the ceiling at the Hi Pointe. The Pageant has their shit together; they didn't put a metal beam right here!" What town doesn't love a band that loves their town?
Rhett set a perfect tone for the night -- humor, excitement, familiarity with the local scene. And the band opened the set strong with "The Grand Theatre," followed by a handful of songs from recent albums (2008's Blame it on Gravity and 2010's The Grand Theatre: Volume 1). From my vantage point, I could see the standing-room-only crowd pushed close to the stage, grooving and swaying ("Movers and martini shakers"), and even noticed the seated crowd who, judging from the median age, were likely fans of the Old 97's since the early days (mid-1990s), nodding their heads and relishing this opportunity to see them live, maybe again after having seen them at the Hi Pointe years ago, or maybe for the first time ("Once in your life / And the time has come"). It's always nice to see a band you love make it, and even nicer to see a group known as being a "bar band" successfully fill a big venue and not get lost in the space.
Yes, a lot of niceness all around last night, all the way through song 14. And 15. Aaaaaaaand 16. ("Yeah, I'm a little bit afraid that we're out of control now.") At song 17, Rhett exclaimed, "Don't get too excited St. Louis -- we're NOT DONE YET!" Indeed.
Maybe like any long-lost love or friend or relative coming home again, fondness is commensurate with the length of the absence. And maybe like any house guest who can overstay the welcome, a 27-song show is a bit much.
But after song 21, the obligatory pre-encore stage exit, audience cheering, and band return, the encore seemed likely to deliver an earlier promise of "But you make it all right, you make it OK." All right, Old 97's, "I'll stay all night / I'll wait right here." Let's see what you've got for us.
For the first song of the encore, Rhett performed an acoustic solo of "Singular Girl." It was lovely, truly. The second encore song featured bassist Murry Hammond performing an acoustic solo of "Valentine" with Rhett harmonizing. Very, very lovely. Then for the third song of the encore, the whole band rocked out solidly to "The Fool." Fantastic.
Admittedly around song 14 I had thought that perhaps I didn't want to stay until the end. By song 2 of the encore, I fully felt those lyrics, "You make me sorta glad that I waited"; yes, indeed, Old 97's, "you thought I wasn't listening / but I was." Those first three songs of the encore were more than nice -- truly, they were an awesome close to a really good rock show.
But then, oh wait, there's another song? And another? Oh my god, there are SIX encore songs? At encore song 5, I asked the doorman how many more, and when he answered "2 more," I hate to admit it, but as I tried to avoid standing in the way of the masses exiting the Pageant, the words they sang hit a little close to home: "'The end is coming soon,' but not soon enough / Restring all your guitars / Pack up all your stuff." Now, I won't go so far as to say that I would have embraced the sentiment behind the lyrics, "Now I'm begging and I'm pleading," but I will say that after nearly 2 hours, I did enthusiastically join the refrain of "I'm on my way / I'm on my way / I'm on my way."
But then the band shut down at encore song 6 (doorman evidently mistaken), and actually, notwithstanding my momentary recall of the lyrics, "I'm gone, yeah, I am free," those final moments proved worth it, as in the midst of Rhett, Murry, Ken and Philip catapulting around the stage in a final fit of glory, guitarist Ken Bethea tripped, face-planted and his guitar went flying. House lights up. Pink Floyd on. Nice. Now that was a grand finale worth waiting for. (Of course, I was enjoying the comedic ending to what overall was a show replete with humor, sincerely hoping neither Ken nor his guitar were injured.)
As my friend aptly assessed, he wouldn't "issue a blanket statement that a 21-song set with a 6-song encore is too much," it does seem like for musicians who have been around since the ‘90s, they might have taken a cue from their contemporary George Costanza, who mastered the art of "going out on a high note." As George learned from the wisdom embedded in these words of his boss, "Lately you have just seemed on; and you always leave me wanting more," maybe the Old 97's might consider that leaving us wanting more is spot on.
Although "We drove home in silence," after all was done, I have to say, it was a good show. Your music is solid, Old 97's, and, to quote you yet again, "I can't explain, I got to let it be / The eyes of Texas are smiling on me." Like any distant love, in your absence, before your next return to this second home of yours, "My love grows… / And will not fade away." And as we listen to your new records, and as "And the band plays / Everybody wants you."
We'll be looking forward to next time.
The Grand Theatre
Here's to the Halcyon
The Dance Class
No Baby I
You Smoke Too Much
W. Tx. Teardrops
Please Hold on while the Train is Moving
You Were Born to be in Battle
A State of Texas
Dance with Me
Let the Whiskey Take the Reins
Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)
Big Brown Eyes