SAN FRANCISCO — Old 97’s shared the new alongside the old Friday night as they took a walk down memory lane with a raucous crowd at the Fillmore, in support of their new record, Graveyard Whistling.
During a nearly two-hour set, the band offered a heavy helping of songs off the new release, but had no shortage of material to choose from among its other 10 records. Old 97’s also charmed fans with quirky anecdotes about one another and their experiences as a band for the last 24 years.
After opening with “4 Leaf Clover,” off their 1994 freshman record, Hitchhike to Rhome, followed by “Dance With Me,” off 2008’s Blame Gravity and “Nashville,” off 2014’s Most Messed Up, frontman Rhett Miller had some unfortunate news to share with fans.
“You might have noticed that our drummer, Phillip Peeples, who’s been with us for the last 24 fucking years, isn’t here tonight,” Miller said. “He got in an accident and busted up his face. He’s gonna be alright, but it’s gonna be another week or two before he’s able to play the drums.”
In the meantime, Jason Garner of Polyphonic Spree is filling in, and according to Miller, Garner managed to learn all of the tour’s songs in just two days.
Old 97’s quickly got into a rhythm, launching into long spates of songs, separated by several minutes of commentary at a time. They’ve been known to boast that they never rehearse their performances, yet they plowed through at least a couple dozen songs Friday night, with a substitute drummer to boot, and the band functioned like a well-oiled-machine.
Songs like “Misanthrope,” “All Who Wander” and “God With God,” among others they performed from their new record, were met with as warm a reception as old standbys like “Big Brown Eyes” off 1996’s Wreck Your Life and “W. Tx Teardrops” from 1997 breakout record, Too Far to Care.
Much of the commentary between songs was about the way the bandmates met, but perhaps the most endearing story San Francisco fans were treated to Friday night was about the city’s role in the birth of one of the band’s most beloved songs, “Barrier Reef,” as told by lead guitarist Ken Bethea.
Bethea explained that Friday morning the band’s van got stuck near Grant’s Pass in Oregon, and he called the absent drummer, Peeples, to “whine about it.” Peeples reminded Bethea about the first time the band ever played San Francisco when their van had also broken down, that time in Vacaville.
“Well, the only thing to do [in Vacaville], in case you’re ever broke down there for three days in 1995 with no internet, is to go bowling. But bowling is not free and we didn’t have much money, so we’d scrimp all day and go bowling. Just one frame,” he mused.
“So we got the van fixed,” Bethea continued. “And I’d forgotten this, [Peeples] reminded me, ’cause he forgets nothing that’s shitty: ‘That fucking Phillips 66 put that shitty alternator on and it broke in San Francisco,’” he said, miming Peeple’s voice and laughing.
“So our first gig in San Francisco, we drove into town with no headlights that evening, to play a place called the Paradise, and we had written a new song, about drinking in a bar with women. And we’re gonna play it for you now,” he said as he began “Barrier Reef.”
Fellow Southern rockers and Missouri natives Ha Ha Tonka opened the show backed by an arsenal of different guitars and beautiful five-part vocal harmonies. The quintet is touring in support of new record Heart-Shaped Mountain, and rocking cowboy boots all the way.
They got the Fillmore buzzing quickly with twangy, catchy songs and a rhythm section that made people want to stomp their feet to the beat. Frontman Brian Roberts was working overtime to maintain his strong connection with the audience, and he succeeded.
Highlights included the moment when all five bandmates stepped out from behind their instruments and together performed an absolutely stunning a cappella rendition of the folk song “Hangman,” as well as the band’s final song, a cover of Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” It’s nearly impossible for any warm-blooded Earthling not to sing along to the latter, so it was an automatic crowd-pleaser.
Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the first club the Old 97’s ever played in San Francisco as the Paradox, it was the Paradise.