fangirl

I broke up with Old 97's last Friday. Or maybe they broke up with me; I'm not exactly sure. Ultimately it doesn't matter, since we got back together later that night at The El Rey. Make-up concerts are the best, amirite?

We've been together for almost two decades, they and I. We were introduced at the 24-hour diner in Tucson where I studied for midterms, and where I was served grilled cheese, butterscotch shakes, and unsolicited music tips by an aggressively emo, tatted-up waiter named Matt. Matt was a living, breathing Recommended For You back when Spotify was just a digital gleam it its daddy's eye. He had excellent taste in tunes and complete control over the diner's stereo. One night he played Too Far To Care in its entirety, a welcome distraction from the Milton tome on my table. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard. I was crushing by Salome, and by Curtain Calls, I knew I'd found The Ones. Once you go alt-country, you never go back.

That was in 1998. By 2001, with the release of Satellite Rides, I was confident in declaring Old 97's my favorite band. It's a designation that has occasionally risked revocation with certain (disappointing) albums, but has never suffered it. I have been loyal, and I have been true. It isn't always easy, though - being with Old 97's. Ours is a relationship built on trust and compromise (it takes a strong, secure girl to let her imaginary boyfriend go on tour without her). The honeymoon years - our golden age! - were filled with songs about girls that were...well, that were just like me. Girls whose lyrical skins I could easily slip into, in my dreams, because they were on the receiving end of misdirected angst, indecision, broken promises, expectations unfulfilled - all the familiar melancholies that constituted the romances of my twenties. Old 97's made for a superb surrogate boyfriend when a) I didn't have one at all, and b) when the one I did have turned out to be human, not rockstar. They were every unavailable, vaguely narcissistic heartbreaker I banged my head against because I didn't know better. They were terrible for me, but at least they were never boring.

Over the years, though, I've had to be increasingly accommodating. Band members have gotten married (to women other than myself!). They've had babies. They've grown up. Their interests and passions have matured - and so, necessarily, have the subjects of their songs. Disillusionment with celebrity, distaste for fame, a sobering up of the qualities that made the Old 97's lyrical Lothario so goddamn sexy - these are some of the themes that have crept into the latest albums. And that is all fine and good for the general Old 97's fan. But it's a bitter pill to swallow for the Old 97's fangirl.

We're easily identified, this breed of womanteen. At concerts, we can be found in clusters, huddled up as close to the stage as possible, jostling for the prime real estate where, if we're lucky, we'll be showered in Rhett Sweat and treated to an overhead jam session by Ken, inches from our heads. These men, after all, are our Johns, our Pauls, our Georges and Ringos. We seek one another out in solidarity, comparing notes on past shows and listing favorite tracks. We jump and scream and squeal and sing ourselves hoarse. We are shameless. We are almost forty. We have incredibly forgiving and patient partners who put up with this shit.

And now, we are irrelevant - at least in terms of Old 97's songwriting. The last few albums have made that painfully clear. The women that now take up residency in Old 97's lyrics aren't the passing objects of affection and lust that we fangirls could pretend we actually were, as we bounced and belted our hearts out, smack in front of the band. They are wives and mothers. They are complex, sometimes damaged, and deeply understood in a way that comes with decades of study, not short-lived dalliance. They are the counterpoint to who Old 97's, forty-something fathers and husbands, really are now.

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go to the show this past Friday. I saw the listing come up on Songkick, but I didn't buy tickets - partly because I didn't think that my 2012 experience could ever be topped. Friday morning arrived and I waffled. Afternoon approached and still I couldn't decide. I popped on to Spotify to see if a few favorite tracks would nudge me into a decision. And that's when I saw they'd just released a new album, titled Most Messed Up. I'd had no idea one was even coming out. Some fangirl.

So I listened to it. At first, I was crushed. It seemed to be the final nail in a coffin I'd been tiptoeing around for years. Here Lies Old 97's: We Ain't Gone to Hell But We Sure Ain't In Heaven. The very first song - a confession to me and every other loyal, longtime listener that Actually, this hasn't always been the ego-stroking, cakewalk of a gig it may appear to have been. We're kinda tired, kinda old, and kinda over it. - scandalized me. How dare they admit to having been occasionally bored on stage?? Didn't they see how hard I had worked all these years to keep that from happening? I listened some more. Hmm, okay. Maybe they're still in there somewhere, the reckless bad boys I fell in love with so long ago. Maybe they haven't evolved completely. Still, it's just not the same...

I looked up reviews of the new album, hoping to find validation that I wasn't crazy; that while they were technically sound as ever, some quality of old Old 97's was missing in these songs. But the critics were unanimous in their praise; I was clearly too stupid to get it.

But then I read the comments on some of the pieces. Opinions from longtime fans such as myself, who weighed in to respectfully disagree - or at least to acknowledge that some albums had been less inspiring (and maybe less inspired) than others. And I realized that I wasn't alone in my failure to be fanatic about the entire Old 97's repertoire. That others had ridden the same twenty year-long roller coaster I had. But as more than one of these musical compatriots pointed out: live, Old 97's never, ever disappoint.

And that's when I pulled my music-loving head out of my music-loving ass and remembered what this amazing quartet has given me over the years (and I'm not just talking about a handful of guitar picks and a precious collection of set lists). I knew at that moment that I'd never miss an opportunity to support them, when they came to town, whether I loved their latest output or not. I would not be a fair-weather fangirl.

It was an incredible show, of course. Top form, all of them, and I was spoiled rotten in terms of hearing some of my favorite songs. I flatter myself that the guys recognized me, dead center and deadly obnoxious, from previous shows - but who knows. And who cares. They stole my heart sixteen years ago and if I never again hear hints of our former, secret lyrical love affair, I still won't ask for it back. It was obvious Friday night that, despite being understandably worn out from a lifetime of criss-crossing the country once a year in a tour bus (filled with god knows what exhausting, soul-depleting substances and dramas), these men still love what they do - and for whom they do it.





















Oh and if you guys should stumble across this somehow: Ken, thanks for the set list. You made this fangirl's night. Again.