Old 97's Bring Energy, Excitement To Baltimore

The D.C. Scene made a road trip to Baltimore Saturday to see a free, open-air concert by the Old 97's at Baltimore's Artscape.

It was refreshing to go to an event where you didn't feel like you were being watched by Big Brother at every turn. Unlike the District, where everyone looks at you as if you're an evildoer about to strike, the atmosphere was relaxed and fun.

There were no large barricades, no security checkpoints and no constant fear of being harassed for whatever you might have on your person. On the contrary, the event organizers allowed you to have a good time. Imagine that. It's a novel idea.

So while the margaritas and mojitos flowed and the bottles of wine were passed around, the Dallas-based Old 97's did their part to make the evening one most will not forget.

Serial lady killer Rhett Miller and Co. showed an enthusiasm and energy that wasn't expected from a free concert in the middle of a Baltimore street.

Miller took the stage wearing a red handkerchief bandana around his cranium, possibly out of respect for a man he met for the first time just weeks earlier. The Old 97's hung out on July 4 in Washington state, and Miller had a chance to step into Willie Nelson's tour bus and meet the living legend.

So with red hanky in tow, Miller dazzled the crowd from song No. 1 and soon had the swooning ladies in attendance focusing on his every move.

The set started with "Won't Be Home," the opening tune off of their 2004 disc Drag It Up, and continued like a greatest hits album.

From "Timebomb" to "Doreen" to "Drowning in the Days," the Old 97's cranked out almost all of the crowd's favorites.

Miller did his part with an abundance of vigor through the entire show. His acoustic set included the trademark French verse during "Question" as well as his beautifully written "Come Around," which can be found on his solo release, The Instigator. His live version of that song is even better than the album version, in this writer's humble opinion.

When he wasn't yodeling (in a good way), Murry Hammond rocked on the bass guitar while sporting Johnny Cash-like poses, shooting down the audience members to the left of the stage. Hammond also sang lead vocals on a few tunes, including "Smokers" and "Crash on the Barrel Head," and even shared a tale about his brief time as a Maryland resident.

Apparently Hammond spent a year living in Rockville while working at a cabinet manufacturer in Gaithersburg. Good times. Needless to say, he won't go back to Rockville.

As most eyes in the audience were hip-mo-tized by Miller and his dreamy-good looks, they might have missed some excellent thrashing on guitar by Ken Bethea and solid pounding by drummer Philip Peeples.

Bethea's the quiet man on stage, moving stealthily about to Miller's right. His eyes shift from the audience in front of him ... to the trees off to the right ... to the bizarre building out beyond the crowd ... only to return his focus just in time to lay down an incredible riff with ease.

Peeples was the man behind Miller's gyrations in the middle of the stage. He strutted his stuff on numerous songs, including "Four Leaf Clover."

The Old 97's were dead-on the entire night, and seemed to be having a great time while doing it. The band hasn't had a new album released since Drag It Up, so they're not touring as much these days. That might be the reason why they came out with so much energy on this gorgeous July night and kept up that intensity throughout the show.

The band was fresh, and on the surface they seemed to be having a lot of fun, which is good news for Old 97's fans who don't want to see their all-time favorite fade while solo projects are pursued.

In all, this night in Baltimore was nearly perfect. Great weather, great atmosphere and an incredible performance by one of our era's underappreciated bands. The only downside? The festival curfew came way too soon.

Who's up for an August trip to Chicago to do it all again?

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