One of the best things about Los Angeles is that there’s awesome live music pretty much everywhere, pretty much all the time. In the eight-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve been to a lot of shows — big [Coldplay at the Bowl], small [Agent Ribbons at the Silver Lake Lounge], and in between. It’s rare that I see an artist only once, and when I do it’s mostly due to the vagaries of international logistics [Camera Obscura] or ticket prices [Lady Gaga]. But the grand prize winner for Artist I’ve Seen Most Often is far and away Rhett Miller of the renowned alt-country band the Old 97’s.* Between solo performances and the full band, I’ve seen him at least a dozen times, including the band’s fifteenth-anniversary tour of my favorite of their albums, 1997’s Too Far to Care. Seven years after my first Old 97’s show, I will still drop everything and rearrange my schedule [or sit through a show while running a fever the day before catching a plane] to be there, in the front row if possible, singing along to all my old and new favorites.
Setting aside the fact that with lines like “La la la, I’m in love with a four-eyed girl” and “Ain’t nobody gonna see eye to eye with a girl who’s only gonna stand collarbone-high”, I’m probably required by law to love everything Rhett Miller writes, because hi, bespectacled hobbit here — no modern musician I’ve ever heard can touch the man’s storytelling skills. Not even Aimee Mann, the second-most “writerly” songwriter I know of. “Happy Birthday (Don’t Die)” from his self-titled solo album is the sort of thing I imagine Ray Bradbury composing if he had been a musician, and I go back and forth on whether to declare “Bloomington” or “Buick City Complex” the American answer to “Waterloo Sunset”.** And even his less narrative songs are often gloriously written… give a listen to “Adelaide” and see if you don’t weep. Most of my professional heroes are authors and screenwriters, but Rhett Miller wishing me luck with my writing after a conversation post-show at the Grammy Museum ranks right up there with getting Ray Bradbury’s autograph on my first edition of A Graveyard for Lunatics or Aaron Sorkin giving me a big hug at Screenwriting Expo ’03.
I grew up in the South, where country music is inescapable, and to be honest I never liked the popular contemporary stuff all that much — as far as I’m concerned, the phrase “a sippy cup of milk” does not belong in a song that was written for anyone over the age of five. Lyin’, cheatin’ and drinkin’ songs are more my speed. Behold: “If my heart was a car, you’d have stripped it a long time ago” [“If My Heart Was a Car”], “Last thing I need is another girlfriend, two’s enough for me — two’s enough, and you would make three” [“Another Girlfriend”], “I went through the motions with her – her on top and me on liquor” [“Barrier Reef”]. And then there’s the pop end of the spectrum, much smarter than any songs that catchy have any right to be: “Our Love” name-checks Wagner and Kafka, for God’s sake. Add a strong sense of place and a sense of humor and it was inevitable that I’d end up with nearly 250 Rhett Miller/Old 97’s tracks in my iTunes library. Or on video singing along with “Won’t Be Home” at the Amoeba Records live show.
While it’s tempting to say that he’s even better live than recorded, that would suggest that Rhett Miller’s 20+ years of recordings were somehow lacking, which they aren’t. But damn if he doesn’t put on the best live show I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. You don’t know energy until you’ve seen him rip through “Timebomb” at the end of an Old 97’s show that started with an opener of his solo work. I can’t think of anyone else I’ve seen who obviously loves to perform that much and puts so much heart into it. Happy birthday, Rhett. (Don’t die.)
* The apostrophe is correct.
** Strong words, yes, but I stand by them. Also, check out his cover of that song on The Interpreter: Live at Largo.