- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

Rhett Miller seems pleased as punch to be back with the Old 97’s on the band’s latest tour. So why is he singing with the kind of snot-nosed delivery that would make a post-punk band blush?

The Old 97’s concert Friday at the 9:30 Club sounded like a band trying to re-establish itself by sheer willpower, when precision would have done just nicely.

The current minitour, the band’s first in more than two years, is but a prelude to its upstate New York recording sessions next month to cut a sixth album.

The Texas rockers took a break three years ago to tend to their personal flocks — a very un-rock ‘n’ roll-like baby boom among its members. Now, the well-regarded quartet is reborn — and sounding every bit like a garage band in a prickly mood.

Call it professionally sloppy, since the juiced-up concert hit all the necessary marks.

Too bad some of the group’s best tracks deserve the kind of gently modulated performances garage bands can’t turn in.

The Old 97’s twangy past continues to fade with the years, though flickers of countrified guitars still peek through the sonic soup. A few brave souls in the sold-out concert hall donned cowboy hats as if to will the good ol’ days to return. The rest retreated to alternative-rock casual.

The group first distanced itself from Nashville clones with 1999’s superlative “Fight Songs” and two-stepped only slightly closer to its Texas turf with 2001’s “Satellite Rides.”

Mr. Miller, whose 2002 solo debut “The Instigator” disappeared before talk of inner band turmoil could emerge, remains a charismatic force upfront. Heaven knows, the band needs every rock star strut and flip of his stringy ‘do he can muster. Bassist Murray Hammond looks like a castoff from “A Mighty Wind,” and drummer Philip Peeples relishes his drum-set anonymity like few other percussionists.

Fuzzy, furious spins on “King of All the World,” “Rollerskate Skinny” and “Buick City” provided more than enough firepower for any self-respecting rock concert, though, and the band’s literate songs still inspire after countless listens.

Still, Mr. Miller seemed uninterested in some of said lyrics, shuffling through them like a dinosaur rocker glossing over the finer points.

Even “Question,” the band’s stripped-down ode to proposing, couldn’t summon the dignity the ballad deserved. And why include the novelty track “Crash on the Barrelhead” when other, more worthy tunes remain untouched from the group’s quality songbook?

Mr. Miller perked up for “Lonely Holiday,” giving lines like, “If you don’t love me, would you at least pretend?” enough raw hurt to win over their faithful anew.

The Old 97’s also trotted out a few works in progress in between established songs, the numbers sounding as advertised — though some offered flickers of promise.

Brooklyn’s own The Damnwells provided a magnetic opening set that overcame a funny but extended product plug. Lead singer/guitarist Alex Dezen sings with the throwaway polish of Del Amitri’s Justin Currie, but his style emphasizes his band’s own beautiful melodies over its modest lyrics.

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