It’s taken me years (and a couple near misses) to finally catch the Old 97’s, despite having reviewed Rhett Miller’s (excellent) The Instigator for my college paper when it came out (15 years ago, holy smokes) and abundant recommendations of their live show. Fortunately, the Old 97’s haven’t gone anywhere. Friends, if you too are late to the party, it is time to effect a remedy. They sound timeless, transporting you to an alt-universe in which alt-country had taken over the jukebox rather than disappearing into Jeff Tweedy’s snappy Stetson. At age 45, windmill-strumming his acoustic guitar, Miller looks not a day over 19, and goodness me but he is good looking (though entirely disinterested in his own sex appeal, except insofar as there’s apparently nothing he can do about it).
Both the Old 97’s and Heartless Bastards offer proof (were any necessary) of the endless array of ways to be a great rock ‘n roll band – I’d be hard put to make the case that the Old 97’s are breaking new ground, but their upbeat insistence on the joys and mysteries of girls, drugs, and rock n roll is as ageless as their frontman.
If the Heartless Bastards scan a little more country in performance than they do on their most recent record, Restless Ones, it’s not just because bassist Jesse Ebaugh sports a very, very, snazzy Stetson of his own. Opening at Royale (on Friday the 13th) with “Gates of Dawn,” and leaning on their more acoustic-led songs, the Bastards sometimes sounded like a scuzzier, gutsier incarnation of the Cowboy Junkies’ elegantly blasted Americana, though the rhythm section of Ebaugh and drummer Dave Colvin create a deeper pocket than anything the Junkies ever put their name to, belying the Bastards proclivity for Black Keys-y slinky garage and work-shirted guitar solos. Never mind that Ebaugh’s hat came off pretty quick: serious country is an attitude more than a question of pedal steel or millinery.
The Heartless Bastards played the relatively small Harbor Stage at Newport Folk last year, but I’ll bet they’ll be back – Erika Wennerstrom and her gloriously acid-washed pipes are more or less custom-made for the headlining Fort Stage on a summer afternoon.