There is nobody cooler than the shifty, modern cowboy who drifts through the storylines of an Old 97’s song. Like Indiana Jones free of morals and ambition, he’s destined to tear through the Southwest, balling the jack of his ’61 Bel Air with Elvis shades, a cowboy hat and a bottle of rotgut between his legs. It’s important to distinguish between the members of the Old 97’s and the characters that inhabit their songs, but I have no idea how frontman Rhett Miller’s parents had the foresight to saddle their son with such a kick-ass, country-rock, Christian first name. For the same reason the good Lord gave Kurt Cobain his punk-rock looks rather than Danny DeVito’s body, I suppose. Some things just work out for the good of rock ‘n’ roll.
The thirty live tracks on the double-disc Alive & Wired are equal parts Old 97’s country and New 97’s pop. That the pop songs are the largest beneficiary of the beer, sweat and no-rehearsal treatment is possibly the most satisfying aspect for those of us still in awe of the band’s brilliant Bloodshot releases (Early Tracks, Wreck Your Life) and its 1997 release on Elektra, Too Far to Care. You’ll get your Wilco comparisons for the country-rock departure of 1999’s Fight Songs and 2001’s Satellite Rides, although these albums feel more like Drive-By Truckers meets smarmy, Dookie-era Green Day than Wilco’s experimental pop-psyche-stream. Miller is a master lyricist for the broken hearted and the burnt out, and the 97’s only play one way live. The glossier tracks off Fight Songs and Satellite Rides (“King of All the World,” “Rollerskate Skinny,” “Jagged,” “Designs on You”) look a lot better in the dim bar lighting when they’ve been roughed up real good.
Similar to labelmates Drive-By Truckers, the Old 97’s use more than one lead vocalist. Bassist Murry Hammond is as pitch-perfect as the folksy spinster of dust bowl ballads, and the 97’s know when to use him. Outside of Woody Guthrie, you’re not likely to find the kind of imagery you get when Hammond takes the lead: Check “West Texas Teardrops” (“The roadmaps of west Texas never gave me good advice/ I’m ’a roll away on an old steel train and discover me my life”), the previously unreleased “Iron Road” (“Worked a little on the railroad/ worked a little traveling on/ at twenty-one my arches lay down flat”), and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”
Hardcore 97’s fans may be disappointed by a few omissions (only two cuts from Wreck Your Life?), but Alive & Wired is a pretty complete package. It includes rarities (“The Villain,” “Wish the Worst,” “Stoned,” “If My Heart Was a Car”) and the aforementioned new track and Merle Haggard cover. And you’re not going to find anyone who can more fluidly express what it’s like to have your heart repeatedly broken by the stick-legged, four-eyed, collarbone-high girls who inhabit gas station casinos on the California-Nevada border.