Review: Old 97’s can still bring the heat |

Review: Old 97’s can still bring the heat

ASPEN – Maybe if I’d never listened to the Old 97’s, Rhett Miller’s solo material would not be such a turn-off.

As an intelligent songwriter he’s mastered the three-minute acoustic ballad, but whenever I hear his solo efforts, I yearn for the power-twang that put the Old 97’s on the alt-country map some 15 years ago.

While it’s clear that the frontman Miller is the fuel that powers the Old 97’s, it’s equally apparent he needs them as much as they need him.

That much was evident Sunday at Belly Up Aspen, in a three-set concert billed as “An Evening with the Old 97’s,” which started with solo acoustic performances by Miller and bassist Murry Hammond.

Solo efforts aside, the Dallas band demonstrated that it’s still on top of its game, blazing through an 80-minute set highlighted by such sturdy standbys as “The Other Shoe,” “Big Brown Eyes” and “Murder (Or a Heart Attack).” It was also a pleasant surprise to hear them serve up a brisk rendition of the R.E.M. staple “Driver 8,” seemingly one of the most covered tunes of the Southern-college bar scene in the ’80s.

But the Old 97’s made it seem fresh again, and made me thankful they haven’t devolved into the abyss like the once-roots-rock band R.E.M. has done under Michael Stipe’s reign.

Somehow the Old 97’s and Miller have learned to co-exist in harmony, at least on stage, where the chemistry between bassist Hammond and Miller is undeniable and a sheer pleasure to watch and hear.

The opening half-hour acoustic sets by Hammond and Miller were the equivalent of having a plate-full of garden salad before a big, juicy steak. The ever-smiling Hammond has such a likable, friendly stage presence that it’s hard not to enjoy him. But 30 minutes was plenty of time for him under the lights alone. The same goes for Miller, whose latest, self-titled album has garnered critical acclaim but leaves this writer with an aftertaste of vanilla.

Perhaps I’m just prejudiced because the Old 97’s came first. But that’s not Miller’s fault – or is it?

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