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Old 97's Rediscover Their Groove

Rhett Miller and company hit the road with Those Darlins

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Their timing was impeccable, and for a moment it seemed like the Old 97's might crossover like R.E.M. or Wilco. In frontman Rhett Miller, they had a handsome singer who looks like Shaun Cassidy, possesses a great rock voice, is nimble but muscular, and pens unusually canny lyrics.

Miller and his mates — bassist/keyboardist Murry Hammond, lead guitarist Ken Bethea, and drummer Philip Peeples — arrived hot on the coattails of 20-something alt-country trailblazers the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, and the Bottle Rockets. Tearing a page out of the Replacements' playbook, they brewed ramshackle twang with spunky, inebriated swagger, then chased it with the power-pop precision of Big Star.

By their third album they'd landed a major label deal, and their Elektra 1997 debut, Too Far to Care, delighted critics. The follow-up, Fight Songs, scored even more critical approbation. But the left turn of 2001's Satellite Rides into crisper, less twangy, more pop-driven territory presaged some tough years.

Over the next seven years they'd release one album, 2004's very disappointing Drag It Up, sandwiched between two Miller solo albums. While great albums, Miller's solo career didn't generate enough commercial heat to warrant ditching the band, and the Old 97's returned in 2008 with Blame it on Gravity. It's not a great album, but a step in the right direction. Still, there's a sense Miller left his best material on the solo discs, putting extra weight on fellow songwriter Hammond.

Miller has expressed his dissatisfaction with Drag It Up, but admits the band probably would have broken up if they hadn't pushed their way through rather difficult sessions. Their latest, The Grande Theatre Volume One (New West), finds them having pushed through the crisis arriving with their best disc since Fight Songs.

Upon its release, Miller stated, "The Old 97's have hit a great stride, found our second wind. I feel like we found the secret to capturing the live energy people rave about after they see us play."

Recorded mostly live-on-the-floor, it bristles with bite and vigor. The batch of good songs was so deep, they decided to split it into two 12-song releases. A 20-song double-album just felt too unwieldy, and they didn't want good material lost in the embarrassment of riches. (The second volume is due in May.)

It's easy to understand their excitement. From the somber, understated C&W stroll of "Let the Whiskey Take the Reins" to the punchy rave-up "Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)" and the Texas boogie of "Dance Club," there's a vibrancy and steel-toe kick to these numbers that bodes well going forward.

On this winter North American tour, opening act Those Darlins also mix country with a punky attitude that comes out in their irreverent musical tales. Their self-titled 2009 debut regales listeners with tales of bicuspid glory ("Snaggle Tooth Momma"), ravenous late-night appetites ("The Whole Damn Thing"), and cheeky '60s style girl-group notions ("DUI or Die," which favors casual sex with strangers over drunk driving).

The band's led by a trio of gals that got to know each other through the Southern Girls Rock Camp in Tennessee, which Kelly Darlin founded while attending Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro seven years ago. It began more as a front porch hootenanny, with the girls passing the guitar and covering old Carter Family tunes, than anything formal.

"It wasn't even a band, it was just like, 'There's these cool girls.' It was really that we liked doing it, and just hung out," recalls Kelly. After she graduated, she took a job doing live sound for Kenny Chesney. "I just felt my soul being sucked out. It was so refreshing not to be in this warehouse of rowdy dudes, and to be with some girls and actually performing music and having a hilarious time."

Over time it evolved, and now they're currently trying out material for their forthcoming album and supporting a seven-inch single featuring two new album songs, "Be Your Bro" backed with "Let U Down." The new Those Darlins album is called Screws Get Loose, and it's due at the end of March. It will surely revisit their girl-group predilections and showcase their ever-tightening harmonies.

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