Despite decent sales and critical praise for his 2002 album, The Instigator, Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller’s solo odyssey turned out to be a rather strange trip–one that found him chatting up Carson Daly, covering Simon and Garfunkel for a MasterCard commercial, and opening for everyone from Tori Amos to Uncle Kracker. Something about the experience must’ve made Miller pine for the familiar comforts of his main outfit: the Old 97’s reactivated late last summer with a handful of hometown Dallas dates to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Judging by those shambolic performances, the quartet–Miller, hyperactive guitarist Ken Bethea, train-beat drummer Philip Peeples, and yodeling bassist Murry Hammond–is still capable of mustering the high-wire twang found on their mid- and late-90s classics Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care. In recent years they’ve moved away from that sound, the Kinks-style power pop of 2001’s Satellite Rides being the most obvious departure, as well as their last recording to date. But Elektra, the band’s home for more than six years, has since dropped the 97’s, keeping Miller as a solo artist. The group’s sudden free-agent status raised hopes for a possible return to Bloodshot, but instead they’ve joined the roster of left-coast imprint New West–home to fellow Texans Slobberbone, Billy Joe Shaver, and the Flatlanders. The band’s set here, expected to include previews of at least half a dozen new songs, is part of a tour that culminates in New York City next week. After that they go upstate to Woodstock to record their sixth long-player, slated for a late-summer release. With roots guru Mark Neil (Deke Dickerson, Paladins) producing, all signs point to a full-fledged return to the careering cowpunk of yore. Brooklyn big-rock outfit the Damnwells open; the show is sold-out. Saturday, January 17, midnight, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203. Rhett Miller also plays Sunday, January 18, at 11:30 AM at the Apple Store, 679 N. Michigan; 312-981-9882.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Williams.