The Grand Theatre Volume One by Old 97s


I find it very exciting when a TV programme is set in a place that I have visited. There was a great show called “Longmire” which was set in Wyoming but the sheriff’s office was filmed in Las Vegas, New Mexico (not the famous Las Vegas in Nevada). Paddy and I visited this town on our second USA trip and it was brilliant. Pete and I went there last year and it was fading a little, especially the Plaza Hotel where the bar shut at 8:00 p.m. There’s also something great about hearing a song mention place names which I have been to. I also love hearing a reference in a song lyric to another song or film. This album was recorded in Austin, mentions the I-35, El Paso, Champaign, Illinois and San Antonio and has song references to The Beatles and Pink Floyd.

Apparently, this record is alt-country but to me it sounds like a rock album. The lead singer Rhett Miller classifies it as “loud folk” and I like that. The group consists of two guitars, bass and drums and they are not dissimilar to Slobberbone in that the music is loud and the lyrics are interesting. Twenty five songs were recorded in Austin in 2010 and they released twelve of them on this album and the remaining thirteen on 2011’s The Grand Theatre Volume Two. Old 97’s were formed in 1992 and have released eleven studio albums with their twelfth album, named “Twelfth” due to be released in a few weeks time. That’s according to their website but Wikipedia list fourteen previous studio albums. It probably doesn’t matter unless you’re a pedant. Which I am.

“The Grand Theatre” mentions the Tate and SoHo but it’s not clear to me exactly which city is being referred to. It’s that capital H that confuses me. “Every Night Is Friday Night (Without You)” is funny. Breaking up is easy to do, apparently and he’s having a great time celebrating every day without his ex as if it is the end of the week. In “The Magician”, he is warning a girl not to be fooled by a magician or ruled by a politician or played by a pop star or swayed by a dancer or schooled by a teacher. Ignore them all because “I am going to be the one for you”. This song is taken at a fast pace with a crazy guitar solo at the end. With barely a gap between songs, “You Were Born To Be In Battle” sounds like a Johnny Cash song.

“The Dance Class” is brilliant. The singer hasn’t left his house for more than a year. From his window, he can see over the road to a dance class and he has fallen in love with a beautiful girl there. When she comes out of the class, he frantically waves his hands at her but she never sees him. It’s a bit odd to really like such a voyeuristic song and Roo hates it because of the spooky nature of it. The recorded version is electric but the clip below is acoustic with Rhett Miller doing a brilliant impersonation of a crazy man.

“Let The Whisky Take the Reins” is more of a Southern groove than the maniacal last song. It’s quite hypnotic and features some very laid back guitar.

“Champaign, Illinois” follows and it is a re write of “Desolation Row”, with the writing credit given as Dylan/ Miller. “If you die fearing God and painfully employed/You will not go to heaven, you’ll go to Champaign, Illinois”. Confusingly, Carl Perkins also wrote a song called Champaign, Illinois and Dylan also gets a co-writing credit on that song even though the two songs are completely different. Pete and I went to Champaign, Illinois in 2015. We had intended to take the Northern route from New York to San Francisco but it was so cold in Ann Arbor that we headed South. Ann Arbor is supposed to be the best student town in the USA but we never got to see any of it apart from a hotel because it was snowing so hard. I have very fond memories of Champaign because it was about twenty degrees warmer than Ann Arbor. We visited a great stadium there. Nowadays, when singing along at top volume to this song, I sing “you’ll go to Champaign/Urbana Illinois” because they are two towns joined together to form one metropolitan area. Did I mention the word pedantic earlier?

“A State Of Texas” is sung at a million miles an hour and mentions San Antone and El Paso which Pete and I went to in 2016 (travelling along Highway 90). The song also mentions blue bonnets (as Nanci Griffith mentioned in “Gulf Coast Highway”) but this time the singer is on I-35. This is the road that Paddy and I took on our first USA trip when we travelled from Austin to San Antonio.

“You Smoke Too Much” and “Love Is What You Are” are more low key but “Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving” is another high octane song with references to songs by The Beatles (“I’m coming down fast so you’d better believe me”) and Pink Floyd (“Set the controls for the heart of the sun”). More excellent lead guitar work from Ken Bethea and Murry Hammond on bass proves that you can look like a cool guitarist while wearing glasses. The song breaks into a slower section before igniting again with “Yeah I’m a little bit afraid that we’re out of control now”. Which, thankfully we are.

“The Beauty Marks” ends this great album on a very low key note after the intensity of the previous track. Old 97’s are a vastly underrated band who have made some great albums combining raw intensity, musical expertise, literate songs and a good sense of humour.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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