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Old 97’s: Still alive and wired

Old 97’s

6:30 p.m. Saturday

Strauss Square

2389 Flora St., Dallas

$25

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Posted 7:52am on Thursday, Apr. 17, 2014

Rock ’n’ roll has never been ambivalent about aging.

“I hope I die before I get old,” declared Roger Daltrey.

“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” yelped Neil Young.

Even the Beatles — that eternal fountain of musical youth — were not immune: “Will you still need me/Will you still feed me/When I’m 64?” queried Paul McCartney.

Now, add to the list another act that refuses to go quietly into that good night, the Old 97’s: “We’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive,” Rhett Miller spits.

That sentiment forms the spine of Most Messed Up, the Dallas-formed rock band’s latest album, which arrives in stores April 29, two decades after its 1994 debut, Hitchhike to Rhome.

Conventional wisdom says rock music is a young person’s game, all vigorous enthusiasm and go-for-broke energy.

Indeed, youth and its inevitable byproduct, sex appeal, are the engines fueling popular culture, trading lead positions like race cars at the Indy 500, forever in parallel.

But the accumulation of years can yield something far deeper and more rewarding than three chords bashed out at high volume.

All the late nights, early hangovers, disappointed relatives, popped pills, missed connections, bad gigs and broken promises of 20 years in the music business — for better or worse — become part of the DNA of a rock band that has lived.

And in the case of Old 97’s, that hard-fought, rock star life informs every cut on Most Messed Up. The band will celebrate the release of the album with a hometown show Saturday at Strauss Square.

‘About the whole life’

The album is a raw, raging and riveting collection, one astonishingly vibrant for a band entering its third decade of business, only in that the band’s youngest member, Rhett Miller, is the ripe old age of 43.

Growing up and aging gracefully is something most rock musicians would rather never do.

It’s a rare species of rocker who is able to shift from one decade of life to the next without ever really seeming to arrive as an adult — the late Lou Reed, for one, comes to mind — but such a creature is the exception, not the rule.

A life spent making music has been on Miller’s mind of late.

Twenty years is a long time to do something, and reaching that milestone is a point at which many bands, including the Old 97’s, pause ever so briefly to glance back at what has been accomplished.

“When it came to this stack of songs and the sort of acknowledgment of the passage of time, I was nervous momentarily because I thought, ‘Well, God, nobody wants to hear songs about being old,’ but these songs aren’t about being old, they’re about the whole life,” Miller says. “The cycle of starting as a young man and growing into full adulthood in this crazy, circus life and the pitfalls that we’ve managed to avoid, and the pitfalls that we haven’t avoided. There’s not a lot of rock ’n’ roll perspective given because [in rock music] so much emphasis is placed on youth.”

Which is precisely what sets Most Messed Up apart not only from other records in the 97’s catalog. With the weariness of songs like Nashville and Wasted, or the room-clearing fury of the title track, which closes out the album with a scream, this one feels earned and lived in, a band capturing what it does best.

Formed in 1993 by Miller and Murry Hammond, the Old 97’s became renowned on the Dallas club circuit for ferocious live performances that, eventually, caught the attention of the major labels.

Cast your mind back to the heady days of the mid-1990s, when label representatives were regularly combing DFW clubs for rising stars — Toadies, Deep Blue Something and Flickerstick, like the 97’s, were swept up in that brief period of feverish regional acquisition. For a time, the sounds emanating from the North Texas area were poised to saturate the national airwaves.

The 97’s, after cutting a full-length and a split EP with Dallas’ Funland for local label mainstay Idol Records, jumped to the Chicago-based Bloodshot Records before landing at Elektra Records in 1997, and releasing what many fans still consider the defining 97’s LP, Too Far to Care.

Care and its scorching lead-off track, Timebomb, brought the band to a new level of success, including, eventually, placement in television shows and films.

Yet, for all the initial momentum, the Old 97’s, whose contract with Elektra was a casualty of the 2001 merger between Time Warner and AOL, never achieved the stratospheric rock stardom for which the band seemed so clearly destined.

The Old 97’s were the Next Big Thing.

And then, they weren’t.

Why the band never quite broke through and entered the musical mainstream is a question that, likely, will never have a satisfying answer.

Is it because the 97’s had the unfortunate timing to arrive just as the music industry was beginning a series of cataclysmic implosions that continues to this day?

Is it because the 97’s and that appealing, ragged fusion of rock, country and folk weren’t necessarily what the public wanted to hear in the era of brain-dead rap-rock and perky teenaged bubblegum pop?

Whatever the reason a mass audience failed to catch on, the 97’s clearly have adoring fans in the TV and movie soundtrack production crowd. If you’ve ever seen the 2006 Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn vehicle The Break-Up, you’ve heard Timebomb ripping through it; Too Far to Care’s Salome and Melt Show are also featured. Tunes have also turned up on TV’s Scrubs, Veronica Mars and Ed.

“Obviously I’m proud of my catalog and the Old 97’s career, but it is something that took a while to get there,” Miller says now. “There are levels of success and there’s always a level above the one you’ve attained, and it’s easy to just long for the one you haven’t gotten yet, instead of appreciating the one you have. It took me a long time to step back and say, ‘Jeez, this is a long career and there’s none of it I’m embarrassed of.’ I feel really good that I get to still keep doing this on the level I do. And the fact that it’s just so rare, especially anymore, to be able to make a living doing this, I’m really proud of it.”

Influence of the past

All of which brings us back to the inescapable fact that the band’s members are now veterans.

They’ve logged millions of miles and played thousands of shows, from grand theaters to dive bars, recorded 11 studio albums and made a mark as one of the Lone Star State’s truly iconic bands.

“I think it’s amazing,” says producer Salim Nourallah. “Most bands can’t spend 20 minutes together, let alone 20 years together. They’re a legendary Texas band now. And I think what this record shows — a lot of people talk about alt-country, Americana and the Old 97’s — this is a rock ’n’ roll record. The 97’s are a rock band, and they’re a great rock band. They’ve continued to push and get better and not operate in this little box.”

Nourallah, who has overseen the last three Old 97’s LPs and recorded Most Messed Up with the band at Austin’s Treefort Studio, along with engineer Jim Vollentine, considers this latest effort a high-water mark for the rockers.

“I think every Old 97’s record is restrained compared to this one,” Nourallah says. “It’s more unhinged than anything they’ve ever done, which I really like about it, because the 97’s are unhinged live. … I think the hardest kinds of records to make are actually capturing a rock band in all of its fury.”

For the last five years or so, Miller and bandmates Hammond, Ken Bethea and Philip Peeples haven’t exactly kicked up much fuss on record.

There was the mannered The Grand Theatre project, released in two volumes in 2010 and 2011, and a pair of excavated albums — an expanded and remastered edition of the 97’s major-label debut, Too Far to Care, and a 1996 six-song demo cut with country legend Waylon Jennings, which was released last year.

In a way, the last two releases — one capturing the 97’s in full ascendance, the other a firm reminder of the band’s roots in country music — spill into Most Messed Up, albeit indirectly.

“I think Too Far to Care had an influence on this record only in that we had a ton of songs to choose from and a lot of ’em were these really pretty songs, and some of them were these songs that wound up being Most Messed Up — these really raw, rocking, brutally honest, over-the-top rock ’n’ roll songs,” Miller says.

Another link to Care is Miller’s embrace of writing from the first person, bringing listeners inside the circus.

Longer Than You’ve Been Alive, which kicks off the 12-track collection, unfolds like a deathbed confession, a rock-music lifer spilling his guts about the highs and lows of living in the spotlight, wittily cataloging the excesses (“Oceans and oceans of alcohol/mountains of weed”) just as he punctures the myth about the glamorous lifestyle (“You should know the truth/It’s both a blast and a bore”).

As thesis statements go, it’s one Miller says he was initially ambivalent about — as he sings on Alive, “I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential/Most of this stuff should be kept confidential.”

“There’s a few songs on [ Most Messed Up] that just stand up and say this is what I chose to do with my life and I’m not ashamed of it. In fact, I’m proud of it,” Miller says.

Yet, by opening up himself and the band, Miller felt freed to reach back to earlier touchstones in the band’s catalog, classics like Niteclub and Big Brown Eyes, which resonate with specificity.

“I remember Jon Brion, my old producer during the making of [Miller’s solo album] The Instigator. I had a song called This Is What I Do,” Miller says. “He was really on the fence about that song, because he wanted songs to be universal — anybody could take it as being about them and if it was too much about the singer specifically, it failed at that. So I’ve always been careful about that.

“Then I remembered some of my earliest songs that people like the most are kind of self-referential: [ Niteclub’s] ‘This old niteclub stole my youth’ and Dressing Room Walls and singing [in Big Brown Eyes] about my friend Robert’s dad thinking the world was going to end — these are specifically about my life and my experience. So I had to back off from Jon’s suggestion, although I do agree with it most of the time. I gave myself permission to kind of just go there on this record.”

And he does. The album pulls no punches, particularly when it comes to conveying the hazards of life on the road and the toll it takes, emotionally and physically.

The title track is laced with that most unprintable of expletives, but rather than placed for shock value, as it might be in the hands of a younger band falling in love with the freedom to say whatever it wants, the profanity here feels like a release, steam escaping from a well-oiled machine.

Not that the Old 97’s would ever be considered shrinking violets, but the effect is a cathartic one, the ability of a band to remind itself that, yes, it is still a vital artistic endeavor.

“I spent so long trying to be a nice guy, trying to make people happy, trying to do the right thing,” Miller says. “I don’t think I’ve ever sacrificed my artistic vision for that, but I’ve definitely always tried to color inside the lines. With this record, it all of a sudden hit me: It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s going to ruin the catalog that I and the Old 97’s have amassed at this point. And the only thing that I think would be a real shame is dishonesty and calculation, trying to make something that sounds like a hit or trying to make something that would get us nominated for a Grammy, doing something that was really calculated.

“[ Most Messed Up] felt like — it just felt wheels-off, who cares, we’re going to do this and we’re going to have fun. If people don’t get it, they don’t get it. But I think they will, because it’s got a real honesty at its heart.”

Nourallah says that at this stage, the band easily could have recycled its records from the past.

“I think that’s the biggest challenge of being deep into your career,” he says. “How do you — forget keeping everybody else interested — how do you keep yourself interested?”

Plan for longevity

Forget interest for a moment, though.

Is Rhett Miller surprised by any of it — the longevity, the ability to kickstart a new decade in such unhinged form?

“I’m weirdly not surprised at all,” Miller says. “When I dropped out of college and gave up the full scholarship to Sarah Lawrence to pursue music — thinking that music is a young man’s game and writing novels is something I could do in my 40s and 50s — I just knew that if I didn’t give myself a safety net, if I committed wholeheartedly to the idea that I could make a life out of writing songs and singing them for people, I could do it.

“[Before signing to Elektra Records], at the time we were being courted by 15 record labels, we told all of them, look, we intend to make the best songs we can make, but we’re going to be primarily concerned with having a career and making the kind of records that will withstand the test of time and let us do this into our old age.”

The new record, like a syringe of adrenaline to the chest, suggests that the Old 97’s will likely still be staring down last call for years to come.

Near the end of our conversation, Miller casually lists a few projects he and the band would still like to attempt: a “straight-up garage band” record, or maybe a Texas swing album, in the spirit of Bob Wills.

It sounds like the wish list of a hungry young band on the make, not the to-do list of settled elder statesmen.

But maybe the Old 97’s — older and wiser, yes — just aren’t built to grow up and ease into their dotage.

“I never wanted to be the kind of band that got older and quieter,” he says, “and so far, we haven’t been that kind of band.”

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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