Live Review

Rhett Miller Rips it Up in Fall River

Rhett Miller on April 2, 2016

Rhett Miller at the Narrows Center in Fall River, MA. (Photo: Gary Alpert)

Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Texas alt-country band Old 97’s, played a thoroughly impressive show last week at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, MA.

Having not seen Miller solo, I was curious to see if he could fill the room the same way his well-loved band does. Fortunately, I can report the answer is yes, brilliantly in fact, as he barrelled through a 25 song set, with just the right amount of “solo act” restraint.

Rhett’s an outgoing artist with boundless energy - and has got to be the youngest looking 46-year-old out there. He took the stage wearing a vintage paisley shirt while looking a lot like alt-country legend Gram Parsons.

Mining the Catalog

Miller opened with a couple of familiar Old 97's tunes, “Won’t Be Home,” and “Streets of Where I’m From,” both songs demonstrating his powerful vocal range. “The El” was next, followed by “Designs on You,” another crowd pleasing 97’s tune from the 2001 album Satellite Rides. He’s a powerful singer and a clever songwriter. His songs are carefully crafted, full of enough angst about the ways of the word, but also light enough to induce a sly smile.

Throughout the show, Miler jumped back and forth between his solo compositions and songs originally recorded by the band. It was a nice mix, as he covered 97’s favorites like “Designs on You,” “Barrier Reef” and “Victoria,” “written for an old girlfriend who’s name began with V.”

He only played one from his recent album The Traveler, a 2015 release where he was backed by members of Black Prairie along with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughy of REM. “Jules,” is a charming love song about rescuing a girl who doesn’t seem to want to be rescued.

“There’s no such thing as rescuing a girl as strong as you,
But tell me dear, now we’re here, what are we to do?
Jules, whatever happens, I will kiss your sweet brown skin.
Tell you all my secrets and then tell them all again...”

Given his affable nature, Miller is one of those artists who can make a sad song sound so good. A good example of that is “Out of Love,” an upside down love song where he sings…

"I’m only home away from home,
I’m only all there when I am gone
I only miss you when I’m with you
I’m only happy when I’m singing a sad sad song”

The intimate setting at the Narrows Center allowed for the lyrics to be better heard. In signature Old 97’s style, Miller sprinted through several tunes, slowing down every now and then to catch his breath and share a story or two. It’s not that he was in any rush to finish the show, (he remained after for well over an hour chatting with fans and signing albums,) it just fits his high energy style.

Mining the Old 97's catalog, he played more crowd favorites including “Nineteen,” (a song “my band doesn’t really like to play,”) “Big Brown Eyes” and “Let’s Get Drunk and Get it On,” from 2014’s Most Messed Up.

Miller’s got one of the better voices in all of rock and roll. And he’s equally strong on the ballads like “Question,” a song originally recorded by his band. It’s a classic love song, and fittingly, he even sang a verse in French. The lyrics offer a proposal of sorts…

“Some day somebody's gonna ask you
A question that you should say yes to
Once in your life
Maybe tonight, I've got a question for you”

For the encore, Miller emerged from behind the curtain to play his biggest solo hit, the pleading ballad “Come Around,” followed by the Billy Bragg/Wilco cover “California Stars,” from the amazing Woody Guthrie Tribute Mermaid Avenue, an album that set the alt-country/Americana world on fire in 1998. The Old 97’s “Timebomb,” an up-tempo tune from 1997’s To Far To Care closed a great show.

Although Miller didn’t play every Old 97’s favorite, every song he sang resonated - there were no throw-aways here – making his live show a totally rocking experience. Burried in my notes from the show, I noted “way better than expected.” Indeed, I’d see him again in a second.

Bob Kendall

Opener Bob Kendall is a Newport, RI based musician who also fronts his own band. Throughout his career which began in the 1980’s, Kendall has played everything from punk to Americana and has opened for artists like Bob Dylan (at the 2002 Newport Folk Festival), REM and Billy Bragg.

He got some welcome attention from the main act – who noted the guitarist might be able to teach him a thing or two about fingerpicking. (Miller is a strummer through and through.)

Kendall’s an insightful songwriter and demonstrated it in a solo set featuring songs from several albums. A highlight was “Midnight Flower” from his 2012 release of the same name. That album was recorded with support from Throwing Muses (and fellow Newporters) Tanya Donnelly and Dave Narcizo.

“Aint it funny what time can do
To people like me and you
We blossom like a midnight flower
But wilt away from the daylight hours”

Other highlights included “WAISTD” (“What am I supposed to do – its twenty-two after two”), and the Dylan-esque “Whiskey Jag.” He’s said to be working on a new album, meanwhile, check out his latest, the self-titled 2014 release Bob Kendall, here.

Ken Abrams reviews music at GoLocalProv, RI’s leading news and entertainment internet only website. Photo by Gary Alpert, Deafboy Photography.