Wilbur Theatre: Vintage Jewel Box Learns To Rock

Boston’s Theatre District is rocking harder, and better than it has in years.  The vintage Wilbur Theatre, built in 1914, is taking on a new life as a first rate concert venue.  Tonight (October 13) TV on the Radio brings their experimental rock to the stage … over the weekend, Against Me paired up with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists … and the week before that it was the Old 97’s.

I caught the Old 97’s show, my first at the Wilbur, and walked away equally impressed with the band and the venue.  I was lucky enough to have had a General Admission ticket that gave me access to an incredible space directly in front of the stage.  The theatre was been renovated to allow the removal of seats in the entire orchestra section … that area is now divided into a smartly managed standing room section.  Now, by smartly managed I mean that the number of standing room seats is closely regulated.  The number of tickets allotted allows for a nicely filled … but not overcrowded space.  You can actually watch the show without fear of being crushed from behind.  Unlike the 97’s, I’m sure a mosh pit developed at the Against Me show, but even so, there’s still enough room to step away from the fray, and still see the show.

The two balcony levels still have their seats … the sight line are fantastic, but the lure of the chair can keep a lot of fannies in the seats.  At the 97’s show, the floor was rockin’ … but the fans above never got to their feet until the encores.  The band deserved better than that.

So let’s talk about the 97’s for a bit.  The first cool thing they did was bring along country music legend Charlie Louvin as their opener.  Louvin is 81 years old, and still bringing it.  He’s not just old school … he built the school.  Elvis opened for the Louvin Brothers back in the day.  Ira’s been gone since a car wreck in 1965, but Charlie keeps on truckin’.  He sang classic country tunes, including some gospel, and had an audience of Bostonians in the palm of his hand.  His band includes his son Charlie (Sonny) on rhythm guitar, and three other crack musicians who could hold their own with anyone.  I had never heard of Charlie Louvin before walking through the doors of the Wilbur … now I consider myself lucky for having caught a show by an American original.  Priceless.

Oh yeah, the 97’s.  Well, in a word (actually two) they rule.  These guys turn out smart alt-country rock better than anyone right now.  The show featured a healthy serving of new material from their CD “Blame It On Gravity” but they expertly weaved in their back catalog with equal energy and commitment.  Lead singer Rhett Miller was in terrific voice … still more handsome than any man has a right to be, Miller tore through songs of love, laughter and loss.  Bassist Murray Hammond added his signature baritone to the mix, and guitarist Ken Bethea ripped power chords from floor to ceiling.  Drummer Philip Peeples kept the beat loud and strong, seamlessly moving from one song to the next.

My favorite 97’s tune “Rollerskate Skinny” was givin a rousing treatment … it ends with Rhett screaming “I believe in love … but it don’t believe in me.”  Great stuff from a band that’s never broken through to the arena level, but can pack a mid-sized hall with hundreds of true believers.  The Wilbur Theatre turned out to be an ideal point of harmonic convergence.


One Response

  1. GREAT band, excellent new album. Very good show. The Old 97’s can be a bit “hit or miss” live (which is one of the reasons why I love them), but they were “on” at the Wilbur that night.

    However, the Wilbur Theater was not a good venue for this band. First of all, the sound was pretty bad. Not the fault the FOH engineer….there’s not a single bit of acoustic treatment in the entire building. A BOOMY room, to say the least. Muddy bass…hard-to-decipher vocals. Again, not the fault of the band, or the soundman, but rather the venue itself.

    The other problem with the Wilbur…no beer. Seriously. An Old 97’s show without cold beer is just plain un-American.

    I don’t think I’ll attend another rock show at the Wilbur. Hopefully, Rhett & Co. will return to a different venue next time.

    BTW…is there a better song than “Barrier Reef”? i think not.

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