Pulling into Chico on time

Honey Dogs and Old 97’s deliver a trainload of prime rock to the Brick Works

TRAIN IN VEIN <br>Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller (center) demonstrates his circulatory fortitude at the Brick Works.

Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller (center) demonstrates his circulatory fortitude at the Brick Works.

Photo by Tom Angel

Honey Dogs and Old 97’s, Sunday, May 6, Brick Works

I was glad to have a pal with an empty seat next to him at the rail above the dance floor when I hustled in just as the Honey Dogs kicked off their set last Sunday night at the Brick Works. Give me a barstool, a tasty beverage and a rock ‘n’ roll band anytime if you want to make me feel at home.

And if the band has a joyfully freewheeling approach to poppy, country-tinged honky-tonk music, you can bet I’ll be whooping it up with the best of ’em in no time flat. And that’s about how long it took me to get seriously enthused about the Honey Dogs, despite some initial trepidation caused by their choice of names. But anybody who’s been in a band called Mummified Mice, as I have, can’t really afford to be hypercritical about other folks’ choice of a band name, so I got over it pretty quick.

The Dogs didn’t waste any time getting seriously deep into some keyboard-laced barroom rock that had me thinking of the Black Crowes, the Replacements and The Band at the same time. Their drummer played amazingly crisp, tight rhythms throughout that interlocked with and accented the performances of the other players perfectly. And the playing and singing were great, with song structures allowing plenty of room for sonic excursions via some strong and melodic electric-guitar solos played at just the right volume to draw a few pleasantly squealing overtones out of the amp.

To keep things interestingly eclectic, one song veered into “Blue Jay Way” territory, and the set closer was a revved-up version of a Sly and the Family Stone number complete with gleefully demented lead vocals and roller-rink organ solo. To make one thing perfectly clear—I’ll do my best to go see the Honey Dogs anytime they play Chico.

Headliners the Old 97’s came on to a warm welcome from a well-warmed-up audience and proceeded to build on the crowd’s enthusiasm. Frontman/rhythm guitarist Rhett Miller has a charismatic presence and slender good looks, with a wiry frame and powerful voice that definitely catch and hold the attention of his audience. And the rest of the guys aren’t slouches either: Bassist/singer Murray Hammond wears his Buddy Holly black-framed glasses with nerdish dignity, and lead guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples hold down the fort and fill out the songs with enthusiasm and skill.

Not having any previous exposure to their recordings, I was a bit surprised that the band had much less of a country bent than reading their publicity had led me to expect. Which definitely wasn’t a cause for complaint, especially when the songs mutated into huge sonic constructs that at times reminded me of the late-'70s version of the Joe Ely band with lots or really big guitar breaks and some tasty harmony singing.

The Old 97’s covered a lot of musical territory over the coarse of their long set, ranging from foot-stomping country rave-ups to finger-picked, Byrds-style balladry to ‘60s-flavored psychedelic garage rock. And they presented it all with the polished ease of veteran performers who obviously enjoy their work. The triple-picked “Jolene” with its multiple drum breaks and blazing guitar freakouts had the downstairs crowd rocking out and singing along with wild enthusiasm, and I had to be impressed by the number of raptly smiling young women at the edge of the stage.

Miller and his cohorts have crowd-pleasing down to fine science, whether they’re engaged in hunched-over ultra-sensitive strumming or heads-thrown-back, over-the-top rocking out, and by the time they reached their encore of Merle Haggard’s upbeat lament, “Mama Tried,” the Brick Works crowd was roaring along like the locomotive the band is named after.

I shuffled out happy to have been a witness of the Old 97’s scene but knowing that it’s the Honey Dogs whose name I’ll be looking out for.