One of my favorite parts about driving to a gig in Cleveland or Detroit in my dear departed 1993 Buick LeSabre was jamming a dubbed copy of the Old 97's in the tape deck and blasting Wreck Your Life back-to-back with Too Far To Care. That the alt-country band's song "Niteclub" was an ode to just this variety of sticky-floored Midwestern club was undeniably part of their road-trip appeal.
Starting out in early '90s Dallas, the 97's combined the searing country- and rockabilly-influenced guitar heroics of Ken Belthea with the elegantly crafted songs of Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond, whose wry wordplay on both hedonistic barn-burners and hard-luck ballads made the songs a bit more meaningful with each listen. Signing with Elektra Records for 1997's Too Far To Care, the band never quite broke through to the mainstream. Though damned if it didn't try -- especially with 2001's Satellite Rides, which found the band toning down the trademark rootsiness in favor of slicker, poppier material, to mixed reactions.
It was no great surprise when easy-on-the-eyes frontman Rhett Miller scored a solo deal, releasing The Instigator in 2002, on Elektra, and 2006's The Believer on Verve/Forecast; in between, the Old 97's struggled to regain their footing with 2004's Drag It Up. But fans of their early sound had to wait a bit longer for the real comeback, the real return-to-form album. Out now on New West, Blame It on Gravity is just that, and also a return to their old Dallas stomping grounds, where the album was recorded.
The more raw, immediate sound does wonders for Miller's love-'em-and-leave-'em tales and Hammond's more God-fearin' meditations, and the disc kicks off in classic 97's style with a sly lyrical undercut: "He came from Phoenix in a borrowed VW Bug to be somebody / or just be somebody who came from came from Phoenix in a borrowed VW Bug." But there's also a more mature, elegiac tone to some songs; "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue" contains such lines as "damn the lonesome ways and the young and foolish days / and the kid who made the man who'd leave you."
The Old 97's are stopping in Pittsburgh this weekend as headliners at WYEP 91.3's Summer Music Festival. The free outdoor concert also features indie heartthrobs The Watson Twins and accomplished alterna-survivor Juliana Hatfield (formerly of Blake Babies, Some Girls and The Lemonheads). Locals Good Night, States open the show, which takes place at Schenley Plaza, in Oakland.
WYEP Summer Music Festival featuring Old 97's, The Watson Twins, Juliana Hatfield and Good Night, States. 6-11 p.m. Fri., June 27. Schenley Plaza, Forbes Ave., Oakland. Free. All ages. www.wyep.org