CD Review of Alive and Wired by Old 97s

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Alive & Wired
starstarstarno starno star Label: New West
Released: 2005

Prior to hearing their live double-disc Alive & Wired, my only exposure to the Old 97’s was a ballad from Satellite Rides called “Question,” which was also on the “Smallville” soundtrack. It’s a great song, but it doesn’t represent the band’s sound very well. In the liner notes of Wired, guitarist Ken Bethea describes his group in the following way:

“When I think of the Old 97’s, the thing that makes me the most proud is that we’ve always been a smoking live band…I love being in a high-octane, sweaty, crunchy, ofttimes out of tune monster that swings and lurches from gig to gig, even from song to song.”

That’s a pretty astute description. On Alive & Wired, the Old 97’s sound as if they are playing in a beer-soaked dive bar, even though the double disc was recorded over two shows at Gruene Hall, which is apparently close to New Braunfels, Texas, wherever that is. The band moves through thirty songs from their catalog, which mostly consists of alt-country, rock & roll and power pop material. I haven’t listened to the studio versions of these songs, so I can’t say if the live versions are a departure, but the tracks do play well together, regardless of genre.

Singer/guitarist Rhett Miller’s vocal delivery is front and center on the most addictive power pop selections – “King of the World,” “Designs on You” and “Murder (Or a Heart Attack).” Bassist Murray Hammond takes over the vocals on the toe-tapping “Mama Tried,” which reflects the group’s country influences and is one of the set’s best songs. The group is proud of its Texas roots, as evidenced by songs like “W. Tx Teardrops” – another Hammond-led country ditty – and “If My Heart Was a Car,” with a bridge that Miller almost screams out: “It’s a long way back to El Paso.”

The Old 97’s are an energetic, talented live band, and that translates to a good concert disc. The material is strong enough that I’m now interested in digging into their catalog a bit deeper, so Alive & Wired does serve as a good introduction to the band. Now, if I can just find New Braunfels…

~John Paulsen