Rhett Miller delivered a sharp solo show in February at the Majestic. Every flinging, sweaty hair in place. Tuesday night at the Barrymore his solo set was just plain sharp. Vocally speaking that is, as in sharp, not flat. The voice that nearly never fails him, the voice that can float on angel wings one measure and growl the next, the voice that he packs like a six-gun was either shot down earlier in this tour or maybe his ear and the stage monitor were never properly holstered. Whatever the case, it's a tribute to his way with words that the way his words sound cannot distract an audience from the good time contained in his remarkable story songs.
A nearly full house of 800-plus at the Barrymore Theater cheered Miller alone on stage for a 10-song set before he was united with his band mates while, outside, a chilled, misty evening took shape more like a mild Hallow's Eve than a hot summer night on the town.
Miller's voice has always parried with the words he writes. In this way, even in a show when his voice is ripped, stopped short of the dimension, power and effortless forays into falsetto and the humbug love it conjures, the songs themselves carry the day. When the muscle car known as the Old 97s rolled onto the track, Miller picked up his electric guitar, put down his battered dreadnought, and used his roughed-up voice to create the hair raising, musical demolition derby the crowd had come for.
No one missed the supple-voiced Miller during "This Old Night Club," which scored big just a couple songs into the Old 97s show. Bassist Murry Hammond, who opened with a solid solo set of his own, pushed his bass around like a four square ball. Hammond's singing is as reticent as Miller's is feral. This makes the harmonies in dramatic songs like "Barrier Reef" an especially emotional blend. When Murry leaps all the way out front for lead vocals, eyes smiling beneath his Clark Kents, his voice is innocence to Miller's skepticism. His vocal on "Color of a Lonely Heart," a honky tonk impression of love's true aim, was pure, under-stated passion. The audience received Hammond's sincerity in kind. It's been a long while since I've been to a nearly-sold-out show at the Barrymore when, between the slow songs and after the applause died down, there was silence. Silence all the way back to the beer line.
But there was plenty of roadhouse in the house, too. Rhett Miller's mini-Pete Townsend windmills on guitar punched up the savagery in "Blame It on Gravity." Ken Peeples drummed the shuffle on this number and others with machine precision. And then there was the blue collar cool of lead guitarist Ken Bethea. Utterly absent of the raw rock glamour of his front row band mates, he could have been working the line at GM for the band's 90-minute set. Ah, but Strat in hand he builds Trans Ams, Mustangs, Camaros and El Caminos. Bethea also revealed, unwittingly I think, just how precise the Old 97s are in their gathering of the world they sing about. It takes true observers to write real music and toward the end of the show Bethea spoke his first words on mic in a reflection of their past visits to Mad Town.
"I visited the Rathskellar last night," he said. "We played in that little space a couple times and I remember the dancer Phillipe. A wonderful dancer." I remember Phillippe, too. A gray haired, petite Philippino man who was a fixture at Memorial Union shows for years and who also kept a beautiful garden on the corner of Park and Dayton Street near the railroad tracks. It doesn't surprise me that of all the half million dancers the Old 97s have performed in front of that Phillipe would stay in Bethea's mind. Thing is, he wasn't that great a dancer. But his sheer joy for the music lifted his feet every single step. Bethea connected to that. That's what stayed with him. That's what the Old 97s shared all evening with Madison last night. When someone in the crowd shouted out that Phillipe had passed on, Bethea dedicated the next song to him.
There's a debate in live music about the nature of encores. While the debate can be tedious, it still raises relevant questions. Are encores gratuitous? Are they inevitable and part of the expected deal? In my opinion, they've become the latter. A long time ago. For me, the fire the band left burning at the conclusion of the main show was extinguished during the tepid minutes of half-clapping and half talking that went on before the three-song encore. It was the communal act of an entitled audience. Not too pretty. My distractions were immediately and mercifully detonated within the first three bars of "Time Bomb."