Rhett Miller, lead singer and rhythm guitar player for the band Old 97’s, played two sets at McCabe’s in Santa Monica on Friday, November 20, 2015. This post covers the first set. McCabe’s is one of those venues that does not permit photography or video, so sorry for the lack of photos of Rhett in this post.
Rhett stepped onto the stage wielding his Gibson J-200 to kick off the evening with Old 97’s song, “Melt Show,” a classic track from their excellent album Too Far to Care. I felt extra special since I was sitting in the front row, the first line of the song being, “In the front row, at the Melt Show, I fell in love with you…”. Next he belted out “New Kid” from Drag It Up, followed by “The El” from one of his solo albums, The Instigator. Having lived in Chicago during my university years and rattled along on the El in many different emotional states, I can really relate to that one.
A story followed of Rhett’s audition for a performing arts high school. He said he played something called, “Marching Mad Man.” The guy running the audition failed to be impressed by Rhett’s use of “open chords” or the fact that Rhett was already writing his own songs and Rhett did not get into the school. So it turns out Rhett is another example that people shouldn’t be put off by rejection, as he has had a pretty successful career making music — one person’s opinion is just that. He concluded his story and laughed as he started up “Buick City Complex,” noting, “this one features some fingerpicking.” The song can be found on Satellite Rides, which is one of my favorite Old 97’s albums.
Rhett then swiftly moved through a group of songs from various albums including: the sad “Salome,” from Old 97’s album Too Far to Care; “Little Disaster,” from Rhett’s most recent solo effort The Traveler; the devil-may-care rocker “Wasted,” from the latest album by Old 97’s, Most Messed Up; deep-cut tune “W-I-F-E” from his band’s album Wreck Your Life; the first track from his solo album The Dreamer, “Lost Without You;” and then back to Too Far to Care for the ever-popular,”Barrier Reef,” which is the song that got me into Rhett Miller and Old 97’s in the first place. I borrowed a line from this song for the blog post’s title. What I love about Rhett is the enthusiasm he puts into every show. He really gives 100% effort to his performance for his audience. Just this grouping of songs shows how much he bounces around through his catalog of material, keeping it entertaining for all fans.
Next was “Nashville,” from Most Messed Up, one of those songs that does not have the title anywhere in the lyric. (Wait, you mean it isn’t called “I’m Tired of Runnin’?”) This song is sprinkled with f-bombs and Rhett commented on it after he sang it. Rhett tells a story about the origin of the swearing in the song at the beginning of the video I linked. At the show, Rhett referenced a sound man, Mike, who after hearing “Nashville” said, “You don’t got to talk like that man.” Rhett tells that this same Mike had a chance to be part of the band No Doubt when it was first forming, but was like, “Ska? Whatever.” So says Rhett, who is such a good storyteller, he could be sprouting any matter of baloney and I would believe it. Is he the king of Balderdash, I wonder?
Rhett then sang the beautiful song “Question,” including a verse in French. This song is on both Satellite Rides and Rhett’s self-titled album – it’s that good! After singing this sweet proposal song, he launched into the break-up song “Fireflies,” without mentioning it was a duet, but I noticed he was singing into one side of the mic for his part and the other side of the mic for the woman’s verses. I love the line in this song (from Rhett’s solo album The Believer): “I’m going to sleep on the train tracks, it’s gonna be peaceful, and then it’s gonna get rough.” Also, of course, “In a jar, Fireflies only last for one night.” So much being said metaphorically; such brilliant lyric writing from Rhett.
A more direct lyric wonderland is “Longer Then You’ve Been Alive,” Rhett’s humorous, “self-referential” tune about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle from Most Messed Up. After playing this one off the latest Old 97’s album, Rhett reached back into the Old 97’s catalog about 20 years to perform “Stoned,” originally on Hitchhike to Rhome. I linked to the album version because Rhett kind of sounds stoned on a bunch of the live videos of this song that people have posted on YouTube. You can also note that his Texas accent is diminished on the later live versions.
Rhett got pretty chatty at this point in the show and told a long story about being on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, as a 13 year old, where he won a magnum of champagne in a limbo contest! The important part of the story was that he met a girl from Los Angeles on this vacation and they became pen pals. Eventually he was able to visit her in L.A. and it sounded like the next song he sang, “Wicked Things” from The Traveler might have been inspired by this relationship or those formative experiences he had with her. He followed that one up with “Just Like California” from Too Far to Care. This has me wondering if there is purposeful planning or some sort of free association happening when he writes his set lists.
Next up is a song that has been stuck in my head of late, “Oppenheimer,” as I have been recently listening to Old 97’s album Fight Songs on a regular basis. This song is so ridiculously catchy. He followed it up with “Niteclub,” another one from Too Far to Care. I could not find a good live video of this song on YouTube, so readers, if you catch an Old 97’s show and they play this song, I hope you shoot some decent video and your camera’s mic isn’t blown away by the amps. After the song, Rhett was talking about how he’ll keep writing more songs (so he can earn more money), because “Is it enough to have 16 albums? No my kids have to eat food…every day!”
Next up was another from Most Messed Up, the one Rhett refers to as the love song on the album, “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On.” He then closed the set with his cover of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s song “American Girl,” which is on Rhett’s live at Largo album, The Interpreter. Rhett told a related story about playing that song with Heartbreaker keyboardist Benmont Tench, where Rhett was being pretty humble telling him that he doesn’t play it like they do, particularly that “disco breakdown” at the end. To which Benmont laughed and responded, “You think that’s disco?”
Rhett returned to the stage quickly for the encore, playing “Most in the Summertime“from The Traveler. The link is to the official video for the song and this is the one he was playing most at radio stations, etc., in promoting his recent solo album. He closed, as usual, with Old 97’s signature rocker from Too Far to Care, “Timebomb.” He mostly stuck to the set list he made, but there was no “Four Leaf Clover” before the encore or “Wish the Worst” after the encore.
What a wonderful evening of music. So many of my favorite songs were played and there were interesting stories too. I’ve compiled a YouTube playlist of all the songs from the set from all the videos I linked throughout this post. Check it out under Rhett Miller Set List 1 Nov 20 2015. But the night didn’t end there, there’s more! Remember, that was just the first set. After a brief break, including a little time spent strumming a couple guitars from the wall in the store section of McCabe’s, I returned to my seat to eagerly await the second set.