“Won’t Be Home”
Alive & Wired, 2005
Old 97’s is a band I’ve long admired more than enjoyed. From the get go they were always sharp songwriters, and “Victoria” (from their second album, 1996’s Wreck Your Life) has one of my favorite opening couplets: “This is the story of Victoria Lee/She started off on Percodan and ended up with me.” But they were a band that seemed to be missing something, absent a spark that lit the fire. Occasionally it would flare through the production but not for an entire album. It was this missing bit that led me to lose track of them sometime in the early 2000s.
Then a few years ago I moved to their birthplace of Dallas, TX and within a month I won tickets to see them headline a showcase put on by the local free paper. I was excited, as many an artist I’ve been lukewarm toward have won me over with a captivating live show. Old 97’s did just that, with a fiery set that married a Replacements level of sloppy indifference with a showman’s desire to be not just the life of the party but the party itself. In a few weeks I had devoured their back catalog and fallen head over heels for one album in particular.
Alive & Wired is a warts and all live recording culled from shows on June 16th & 17th, 2005, at the historic Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, TX. And, like many live recordings, it’s a bit of a mess, with bum notes from everyone concerned; the most glaring occur when lead singer Rhett Miller can’t hit the high notes that multiple takes let him reach in a studio, and when bassist Murray Hammond’s harmony vocals end up in harmony with something besides the band and the lead singer. But unlike the aforementioned sloppy Replacements, Old 97’s sincerity covers any flubs with a shrug and a smile. They’re trying their darnedest, and they’ll put on the best show they can even if it kills them.
On the studio version of “Won’t Be Home” (found on 2004’s Drag It Up) the band held back on the gallop and Rhett’s vocal restraint made the song more about the lyrics than their delivery. But on the Alive & Wired version he opens his throat wide again and again, and the sound moves from up in his head to down in his gut. He moves from storyteller to protagonist, and sells the shit out of it. And instead of reining it in, the rhythm section of Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples make it race; the road moves from the metaphorical to the physical, and Ken Bethea’s guitar solo is full of the grit and gravel kicked up by that journey (In case you were wondering, yes, I talk like this, too. It’s not an affectation of my writing). It’s why I gravitate to live music, in person and on record. I want to hear the sweat, feel the resonance, be caught in the moment, to the extent of getting lost moments I wasn’t there to experience myself. It existed, was witnessed, was lived. The idea made real.