When I catch their shows I can always count on certain things: Rhett Miller mentioning the time years ago when he hit his head on one of the ceiling beams while performing at Cicero's; the encore will close with "Timebomb;" the ladies in the audience (and a fair number of the men) will swoon and flutter when Miller performs "Question." Most of all, I know that I'll be highly entertained by a crack band with one of the best catalogues of songs around. Like the old saying about pizza, even when the Old 97's aren't at their best, they're still pretty damn good. Last night at the Ready Room, they were definitely working at peak efficiency.
The band was tighter and more energetic than I've seen them in a long time. Maybe it was playing in the more intimate confines of the Ready Room as opposed to the more spacious Pageant, where they've been booked most often in the recent past, or maybe it was the new record, "Most Messed Up," which comes across as more raw musically and less concerned lyrically with the clever wordplay and romantic longing than a lot of their past work.
From the time they hit the stage and ripped into "If My Heart Was a Car" through the ubiquitous "Timebomb," the 97's careened through a career retrospective that included standards like "Barrier Reef," that they almost have to play or risk a fan riot, to plenty of new songs from their latest record. Their performance of the title track of that work was particularly incendiary, with the usually verbally nimble Miller screaming out the blunt refrain "I'm the most messed up motherfucker in this town," while the rest of the band melted down around him.
The moment underscored what seems like a return to the punk energy that fueled the 97's earlier career, and the cover of the Clash's "Career Opportunities," which came during the encore, drove that point home even further.
One thing I did miss at last night's performance was the usual banter between Miller and bassist/vocalist Murray Hammond, who plays the "aw shucks" straight man to Miller's charming, lovable rogue persona. Except for a few quick asides they had little verbal interaction, though musically they were very much in sync.
Newcomer Madison King opened up the show with a set of country pop/rock that straddled the line between mainstream country and some of the more alternative strains of the genre. With big drums, bigger guitars and a plaintive, crystalline voice, King can have a stellar career on either side of that fence. Early in the set she announced that the show was the first one on what is also her first tour, though King and her band showed no signs of rookie nerves.