In the Old 97's' 2014 song "Longer Than You've Been Alive," Rhett Miller sings about the trials and triumphs of playing shows for more than 20 years. "Some nights I might have been checkin' the clock," he admits.
Saturday night was assuredly not among those. Headlining the inaugural Old 97's County Fair at Main Street Garden Park in downtown Dallas, the veteran quartet put a feather in its hometown cap with a high-spirited festival that Miller called "A dream come true."
As far as music fests go, it was indeed pretty dreamy, with eight acts performing underneath the art deco Mercantile Tower clock in near-perfect weather — warm and breezy, with just enough clouds to keep the sweat at bay and stave off sunburn.
As a 40-foot Ferris wheel spun next to the century-old Dallas Municipal Building and fans won stuffed animals at the Roll-A-Ball stand, it did feel more like a county fair than a rock festival. Babies, kids and dogs on leashes were a common sight. Angry, drunk shirtless dudes were not.
Two North Texas acts — singer Madison King and Slobberbone front-man Brent Best — kicked off the show, followed by Nashville-based singers Nikki Lane and Justin Townes Earle (Steve's kid) and the shambolic Rhode Island roots-rock band Deer Tick.
The fest swung into high gear with the rousing Memphis group Lucero. Vocalist Ben Nichols gave a shout-out to his brother and Mud director Jeff Nichols before singing "Loving," an acoustic ballad he'd written for his sibling's next movie. But the set didn't really take off until the band sped up and turned up the volume — all the better to show off Nichols' gritty tenor (shades of Brent Best) and Rick Steff's stirring Springsteen-like keyboards.
The Georgia-based Drive-By Truckers have been alt-country torchbearers almost as long as the Old 97's have, and they filled their set with odes to their North Texas comrades. They invited Denton's Scott Danbom to add tangled fiddle work to "Tornado" and other tunes, and singer Patterson Hood changed the lyrics of "Let There Be Rock" to honor Best's old band: "I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd/I never saw the Clash/But I toured all over the country with Slobberbone (expletive)!"
The Old 97's ended the evening with a typically athletic collision of country, punk and power-pop, accented with a strong allegiance to the British Invasion.
Without a new album to promote — their last was 2014's Most Messed Up — the band gave a wide-ranging career retrospective, shifting from the tender love song "Question" straight into the callous rocker "Let's Get Drunk and Get It On," with covers of R.E.M. and Merle Haggard thrown in for good measure.
More photos from Saturday:
This certainly wasn't the 97's' finest hometown show ever. "Big Brown Eyes" was sloppy bordering on reckless, and the band's overall energy was a notch below their usual high voltage level.
Yet if it wasn't all-out electrifying, the Old 97's set was solid enough to successfully cap a festival that has the makings of a grand Dallas tradition.
"Start making your plans for next year," Miller said. "We're going to do it again."
Thor Christensen is a Dallas writer and critic.