Home Live Review Live Review: Old 97’s w/ John Hollier @ 9:30 Club — 9/20/23

Live Review: Old 97’s w/ John Hollier @ 9:30 Club — 9/20/23

Live Review: Old 97’s w/ John Hollier @ 9:30 Club — 9/20/23
Old 97's (Photo courtesy Red Light Management)

During their recent set at the 9:30 Club, the Old 97’s played, quite appropriately, “Doing This Longer Than You’ve Been Alive.” It’s a nod to the band’s longevity: This was the band’s 30th anniversary tour. The song is addressed to lead singer and lyricist Rhett Miller’s kids, who have been born since he started playing with the Old 97’s.

Remarkably, as long as they’ve been around, their lineup has been stable, with Miller joined by Murray Hammond on bass, Ken Bethea on lead guitar, and Philip Peeples on the drums.

As “Doing It Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” tells the tale, the Old 97’s have had their share of hard living on the road, imbibing “oceans of alcohol” and “mountains of weed.” In more recent years, Miller has spoken about getting sober. They addressed the mountains of weed with “Stoned,” and, like any band that has been touring as long as they have, they have songs about their time on the road, like “Dressing Room Walls.”

Allmusic describes the Old 97’s, who formed in 1993, as a second-wave alt-country band. The first wave of alt-country started in the mid-to-late ’80s, with bands like The Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo. Distinctively, the Old 97’s mix twangy country-rock with power pop. True to their Texas roots, there’s a lot of  fellow Texans Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings in in their music, but they also draw from bands like Big Star.

During the 9:30 Club performance on Sept. 20, there was a curious echo of another recent show. Murray Hammond mentioned seeing the Buzzcocks at the *old* 9:30 Club, and, like Freedy Johnston had, they mentioned the venue’s distinctive rodent population. One thing seems clear about the old 9:30 Club: It had a rat problem. Fortunately, the current venue is blessedly free of vermin. (Insert joke here about how it’s free of rats, unless you count some artist you consider very irritating.)

At 9:30 Club, the Old 97’s kicked off their set with “Niteclub,” followed by “Doreen.” I’ve seen Rhett Miller play solo, and those were singer-songwriter shows, with more stage banter. Here, the band focused on getting out the songs with a minimum of extraneous fat. While there were songs like “W TX Teardrops,” “Streets of Where I’m From,” and “Buick City Complex” that drew on their Texas roots, this is not a band from the dusty plains: Their Texas is the Texas of big-city Dallas. (Miller even has a family connection to the beloved Dallas Cowboys, and the cover of their latest album, 2020’s Twelfth, features a picture of legendary quarterback Roger Staubach on the cover.)

The secret sauce of the Old 97’s is that, while they play loud rock & roll, they do it with an open heart and their songs have sensitive lyrics. A fair number of love songs made it into the set: In addition to Doreen, there was “Big Brown Eyes,” “Dance With Me,” and “Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue,” and “Valentine.”

Watch Old 97’s perform “Big Brown Eyes” live for KXT Live Sessions on YouTube:

Not all their songs are so sweet, though: There is a sense of danger, even menace to “Designs on You.” Miller has also changed the lyrics of “Doreen” to make it more palatable as he’s no longer of an age to be singing a 17-year-old girl.

The band took it all the way back to their first album with “Wish the Worst” — and “Oppenheimer” was a timely choice for the set, given the recent film about the physicist. They got in some commentary on religion with “Jesus Loves You.” Other songs included “Lonely Holiday,” “Won’t Be Alone,” “The Dropouts,” “Champaign, Illinois,” “Barrier Reef,” and “Four Leaf Clover,” which closed out the main set. For their encore, Rhett came out and did “The Question” solo, then was joined by the band for “Good With God” and “Timebomb.”

A longtime sideman to artists like Carly Pearce, John Hollier, a native of central Louisiana who now lives in Nashville, stepped out on his own last year with his debut album, Hollier. He played a highly energetic opening set, backed by a five-piece band: two guitars, bass, sax, and drums, with John himself on acoustic guitar. Early in the set, I noticed that Hollier is clearly influenced by Bruce Springsteen, and this was borne out by the inclusion of a cover of “Badlands” in the set.

Hollier was new to me, but his music hits my sweet spot for heartland rock. I didn’t get most of the songs, to be honest, but I do know he played “Malina.” This was his first time in DC, and he and his band clearly savored the opportunity to play at the 9:30 Club, stopping to take a photo with the crowd as backdrop. There’s a lot of promise here; the songs are quite solid, and the band attacks them with a rare energy. As an opening act, they did a great of getting the crowd hyped up for the Old 97’s.

Based on what I’d heard from friends, I expected the Old 97’s to be louder. But the volume was just right, and it didn’t interfere at all with the songs and the lyrics: I could tell what everything was. I’ve definitely heard bands that played much louder, to the point that it obscured the songs, but that wasn’t the case here. These guys are pros, and they know what they’re doing.


  1. Thanks for writing about the opening act…I’m going to the show tonight in Boston and was looking for info on Mr. Hollier. Based on your description I’ll be going in on time to check him out…


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