On Friday night I saw Rhett Miller in concert, the last time I saw him was eleven years ago in St. Louis. I did the math while sipping a Moscow Mule before the show, and I’ve been listening to Miller and his band Old 97’s for fourteen years. Most artists today seem to appear on the music scene and then dissapear after two or three years. Longevity, along with album sales, seems to have vanished from the music industry. I guess that’s why I’m shocked I’ve been listening to Miller for so long.
I discovered Old 97’s while trolling music magazines on my lunch break, back when I was working for minimum wage at a chain drugstore. The band’s blend of rock and country fascinated me…and Miller had a cool haircut…so I bought FIGHT SONGS and the then-newly released SATELLITE RIDES. I was blown away and the band quickly became one of my favorites. Pioneers in the “alt-country” scene, like The Jayhawks (another great band I’ve only recently discovered), the Old 97’s are one of those great bands that haven’t had massive mainstream success in large part because they don’t fit neatly into one genre.
Rhett went solo in 2002 with THE INSTIGATOR* and for a moment I feared the 97’s were done for. Luckily for all parties, Miller quickly proved that he can walk the delicate balance between band and solo career. I saw the Old 97’s just before I moved away to college, the show was more raucous and raw than I’d imagined. But as I waited for the show to start Friday night I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see Miller by himself a decade later.
It takes a special kind of talent to go up onstage alone and play songs by yourself, especially when the songs everyone knows and lovers were recorded with a full band. If I’d had my choice prior to the show, I’d have preferred to see Miller play with the Old 97’s rather than just bang away on his guitar alone. But I must admit there was something really special and intimate about seeing Rhett with only a guitar. The stripped back set also reminded me once again what a powerful set of pipes he’s got, his voice still boyish and ragged. The set list was surprisingly heavy on Old 97’s material, with the best songs from his solo output peppered in between. I wasn’t expecting as many of his band’s songs to be included since it was a solo show. Despite being pared down, all of these songs sounded great.
The venue, unfortunately named The Soiled Dove Underground, was small and intimate. I’d estimate it could hold about 200 people and the crowd was about half that size. The Soiled Dove is a sort of yuppie jazz club, which clashed a bit with the Texas-twang Miller was throwing off. I was seated at a table, which made my knees happy, and the audience was brimming with a white hair. That said, I wasn’t the youngest person by far—an 11-year-old girl named Nora was in the front row, sitting dead center of the stage. I know her age and name because both Miller and his opening act made a big deal about their being a kid in the audience. Though two sets of people sent shots of tequila up to the stage for Miller (he politely said thanks but didn’t drink them, sticking to whiskey the entire evening) the show was much tamer than the night I saw Old 97’s in St. Louis.
About halfway through the set, Miller confessed to not really having a set list and began taking requests from the audience. There were a lot of requests for older, twangy-heavy 97’s tracks like “Murder or a Heart Attack” and “Timebomb,” which was to be expected. More interestingly, though, there were also few oddball requests that Miller was all to happy to oblige. The first and best oddball request was for REM’s “Diver 8” off that band’s 1985 album FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION. Not only was Miller happy to sing this song, he also prefaced the song with an anecdote about seeing Peter Buck in his boxer shorts in Mexico.
Later, after the audience was good and liquored, there was a great swell of enthusiasm for Miller to play “Murray” songs. This of course was a reference to Murray Hammond, the bass player for Old 97’s, who has over the years contributed a handful of really kickass songs to the band’s repertoire. Miller did an admirable job replicated the solemn “Valentine” off FIGHT SONGS as well as performing a valiant though lyrically incomplete run through of “W. TX Teardrops” off 1997’s TOO FAR TO CARE. I dearly love both of those songs and seeing them performed live, although by a different singer and with giant lyrical holes, was a nice treat.
Time’s been kind to Rhett Miller and his ability to give a crowd exactly what they want. Before playing his final song, Miller said that he’d be back later this year in Colorado with the Old 97’s. I’m not sure I’d have gone prior to seeing this show, but Miller has definitely sold me a ticket to that show.
As a side note, Miller’s opening act was a record producer friend of his who seemed really interesting. I tried to remember his name, but it escaped me. I’ve tried to look it up online, but both the venue website and Miller’s tour page fail to name him. I love seeing new acts and find being introduced to an artist for the first time live is a really great way to discover new talents. I wish artists/bands would make it easier for us in the listening public to find out who they are. The opening act doesn’t have to be on the marquee or anything, but if you got a strange/unusual name, maybe say it more than once or twice?
*I don’t count the out-of-print MYTHOLOGIES from 1989.