Live Review: Old 97’s, Cliff Hillis, Ardmore, PA, Nov. 3, 2021

Chief among the infinite number of reasons to see Old 97’s every time they roll into town is how all of their songs really come alive on stage: staples that never get old, relative rarities from their rich back catalog and, every few years, choice cuts from a new record. Guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hammond, drummer Philip Peeples and frontman Rhett Miller have the chemistry, chops and muscle memory to speed through everything like a train always just about to jump the track while ending up, without fail, exactly where they’re supposed to be.

Landing at Ardmore Music Hall for their first show outside Texas in nearly two years, they played it pretty safe, with 19 classic Old 97’s tunes, just three from 2020’s Twelfth and no surprises. But that was more than enough for a solid evening. Marveling that less than 24 hours earlier, he’d been in Dallas watching the Rolling Stones—a band that’s been doing this longer than he’s been alive, and one that takes delight in going off the rails every now and then—Bethea expressed a most familiar mix of gratitude and astonishment and anxiety that music is bringing us together again.

I would have loved to hear what more of Twelfth’s songs sound like with the electric current shooting through the band to its fans and back again—particularly “This House Got Ghosts” and “Confessional Boxing”—but the three we got fit perfectly into the Old 97’s canon. Twenty-one years separate Fight Songs’ “Jagged,” which kicked off the set, from “Turn Off the TV,” but Miller sang them like barely any time had passed at all and a good night’s sleep made all the difference between existential exhaustion and a bit of low-stakes fun. Twenty-five years have passed between Wreck Your Life’s “Big Brown Eyes” and “Bottle Rocket Baby,” but Miller’s still covering the same lyrical territory and it’s up to his buddy Robert, who’s name-checked in both tunes, to pull him out.

Of course, pouring all that passion into classics like “Stoned” and “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On” when you’re high on sobriety, as Miller has been for the last couple album cycles, could add to the distance between the material and the antics that inspired it. But for the most part, the brawny interplay between Bethea, Hammond, Peeples and Miller created a safe space to indulge in the insecurities and personality flaws that made us relate to the bleary-eyed and broken-hearted protagonists of “Salome,” “Valentine” and “Good With God,” feeling the darkness at a remove and knowing it could overtake us again someday—but not tonight.

For me, it was the third and final offering from Twelfth—the beautiful “Belmont Hotel,” a request from a couple who made it through a rocky time in their relationship, played by Miller solo as the first song of the encore—that was the most emotionally stabilizing. The metaphor of a rundown hotel being resurrected and “better than brand new now” isn’t just an aspiration for folks pulled back from the brink of divorce or on the other side of rehab, but for anyone who’s made it this far through a pandemic and back into spaces where we can make the choice to see one another fully, insecurities and flaws and masks and all. Sometimes the light of the end of the tunnel isn’t a train barreling toward you but the dawn of a day that’s breaking, for better and for worse, decades later than when you entered that dark place.

The always entertaining Cliff Hillis opened—and, as an added bonus, brought Miller onstage to sing with him on “Let’s Pretend”—but I missed his whole set because I jumped on the wrong train out of the city. Still, I made it in time to see Old 97’s and folks I hadn’t seen in a long time, and that, too, was more than enough.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich