It's hard to turn people out for a rock show, especially when you're a band that tours relentlessly. Fans can always catch you next time around. So what can you do to make it special, to capture the attention of those lazy folks who strutted around their college campus in a T-shirt with your band's name emblazoned across the front but haven't been to any concert in six months?
Well, if you're Old 97's, you celebrate a decade-and-a-half since the release of your classic third album Too Far To Care with a promise to play the whole thing straight through. You tell those complacent couch potatoes exactly what they're going to get: the good stuff. Have no fear, you will know all the words.
Of course, the originally-from-Dallas quartet is far from the first band to use a classic album performance to put butts in the seats. The industry might no longer sell albums, but they can sell tickets to shows designed around albums-as-auditory-nostalgia-bombs. All Tomorrow's Parties has been mining this well with their "Don't Look Back" series for years, helping bring the practice to the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2007.
Now, as Old 97's come through Nashville for the 1-millionth time (1.5 millionth if you count frontman Rhett Miller's solo appearances), you know this show will be different. You know the night will open (not close, as is often the case) with the desperate, propulsive "Time Bomb" and then transition into the sardonic, riff-heavy "Barrier Reef." What you lose in what-will-they-play-next excitement, you gain in communal experience. You (and the drunk guys next to you) know that as "Salome" winds down, bass player Murray Hammond will be stepping to the front of the stage for the twangy, revivalist "W. TX Teardrops."
So, the inevitable question: Does Too Far To Care deserve all this attention?
Fuck yeah it does.
As a listener, diving back into this album has been a revelation. It's hard-hitting, dynamic and catchy as hell. It's also ludicrously sad. All the songs are about breaking up or hooking up to forget that you're breaking up. The moments of swagger — like the hilarious, heartbreaking "Barrier Reef" and the long-distance lament "Niteclub" — are sharply ironic. Go ahead, sing along with Miller as he wails, "This old nightclub stole my youth / This old nightclub stole my true love ... My life was misspent / Don't let me be misunderstood." Then think about your early 20s and weep quietly into your beer.
There are so many perfect Miller one-liners on this record. On the rampaging "Melt Show," a song detailing the withering of a summer romance, he assures, "I'm getting tired of you getting tired of me." On "Big Brown Eyes," he prepares for a breakup by announcing, "Restring all your guitars / Pack up all your stuff." And on "Streets of Where I'm From" he states, "And I've been had / At least that's how it looks / And it's not funny like on TV / And it's not smart like it is in books."
But beyond affecting lyrical turns and wily, unforgettable guitar parts (of which there are plenty), Too Far To Care has something intangible — an emotional cohesion, an ability to paint the picture of a specific emotional universe. This album is sad, drunk, desperate, delusional, loud, lonely, self-flagellating and too smart for its own good. Which brings us back to "Time Bomb," a song that deserves a second mention. Paragon of opening tracks. Battle cry. Seizure of heartache. Something you can move to. It sets the tone for everything to come, vibrating with that vintage Old 97's cowpunk strut while dropping enough of the twang to signal that this is a new direction for the band. It has Miller's slicing wit — "She's gonna kill me / And I don't mean softly" — and an irresistible rhythmic momentum. And most importantly, it builds to a cataclysm of emotion exhausting enough to produce catharsis. Oh, and it's only three minutes long. Hearing Miller howl his way through that one would be worth the price of admission alone.
Personally, I have passed on multiple opportunities to see Old 97's play live in recent years, yet I am breathlessly anticipating this show. Therein lies the dark secret of concert-going: We don't want to hear the new stuff. Not really. The best albums — and the best songs — are time machines. They connect moments to each other across the expanse of time. Proust could have easily replaced his cookies with a guitar riff. I'm sure this band remembers the era when they made this album (though, after considering the content, maybe Miller would prefer not to). I certainly remember the period when I was listening to it. I was in college. I had a lot of feelings and drank a lot of beer. When I stand in the audience and experience Too Far To Care from start to finish, I will know that former self a little better.