Old friends and the Old 97’s: Rock, Ritual, and Community

I spent the last few days with old friends. I met my friend John when we were roommates during my first year of grad school. He’s married now, living in Boston with his wife and daughter. We’ve stayed friends over the years even though we have a running joke about seeing each other only every 18 months, or so. John and I became fast friends back in 1999 because of our mutual love of music.  For him, it’s Bruce Springsteen who can’t be topped.  I don’t share the love of Bruce, but I understand.  I understand because for me it’s the Old 97’s, the other friends I hung with in Boston this weekend.

Nobody ever sees the drummer.

Now, the 97’s and I aren’t friends in the common usage of the term.  These days I see them less than I visit with John. I’ve never shared a meal or a drink with them. I’ve never even spoken with them, in fact, but over the last 15 years or so I’ve spent 15 to 20 (I’ve lost count) of the best evenings of my life with them.  This show in Boston was a sort of retrospective as they are touring for the 15th anniversary of their 3rd album Too Far To Care (seriously, you have to hear it), and like always it was a high energy performance.  They played the entire album, and hearing some of my favorites back to back, many of which I hadn’t heard them perform in years, was exhilarating. I watched from what has become my ‘must be there’ spot for a 97’s show – against the stage in front of guitarist Ken Bethea to get the full experience of his careening off the rails, twangy rock stylings.

My spot.

At its best, a rock concert is a collective experience of the highest order. A crowd of strangers spend a few hours shoulder to shoulder, mutually focused on the performance, and singing (mostly) in unison at the top of their lungs along with their idols on stage.  ‘We’ become a tiny community with honored rituals (for 97’s fans, shouting ‘Yeah!’ at the right moment during ‘Big Brown Eyes’ is an example – see it at about the 3 minute mark) and sacred symbols like Rhett’s signature strumming that conjures images of rock-god Pete Townshend.  Inside the venue, where the shared emotional experience depends highly on the boundaries between us and the outside world, rules about personal space and appropriate behavior are different than they would be in most other public places.  Jostling and touching that would get you shunned elsewhere is par for the course as civil inattention is granted even to the lady spilling her beer on you all night long. The mutual focus and shared emotion produces a feeling of exaltation that one can only be reminded of while listening to an iPod. Strangers, for that brief time, become friends with whom you reminisce about that great show in Chicago years ago (really, see them at the Vic sometime like Joy and I did, with John, back in 2001).  We ‘high-five’ and clap in unison to ritualistically induce an encore.  We cheer gratefully when the band returns to the stage, they thank us for wanting more when they acted as if they were done.  When the 97’s play the opening notes of ‘Timebomb‘ to end the show, as they always do, the crowd erupts knowing that this is the last bit of collective effervescence we’ll get for the evening.  For 3 minutes we jump and dance and scream louder than we have all night.

Then the house lights come on and the show is over.  A few lucky fans get set lists and picks charged up with memories of the fun, and we may save our tickets to help hold on to some of the feeling even years later (maybe we name our cats after characters from their songs).  We see only the backs of our fellow fans, once again strangers with a moral right to be ignored and given space, as we shuffle out the door and onto the street to head home.


Thanks to Joy for the pictures!

Thanks to YouTube posters for all 97’s video to choose from.



  1. Am I remembering correctly that I met you and Joy at a concert? Not quite as high-quality and joyful as the 97’s, but a treasured memory.

    Thanks for all of the great music recommendations over the years. Payback: You should really listen to Dr. Dog if you are not already.

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