Rhett Miller | 04.18.06

Highlights of this tour stop featured the inclusion of The Believer’s best tracks, “My Valentine,” “Help Me Suzanne,” “Singular Girl,” “Meteor Shower,” and the swooningly upbeat “Brand New Way,” a song that could save the world if we could just get it into the right hands.

 

The Gargoyle, St. Louis

 

The old folk syllogism asserts, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” But if that duck is the erstwhile frontman for the alt-country troubadours Old 97’s waddling out on his own from his familiar pond, Rhett Miller is proving to be a bird of a different color.

With the Old 97’s on hiatus and his second solo record, The Believer, just released, the affable Miller has assembled a touring band a bit more ragged, a bit louder, and bit more rowdy than his traditional cowpunk cohorts. When Washington University hosted the quartet in the cafeteria-style basement of the Gargoyle, Miller, making his first appearance in town as a solo artist, seemed a little bemused by the surroundings. A perennial veteran of Cicero’s, the Duck Room, Mississippi Nights, and other St. Louis live music hotspots, Miller boyishly ribbed the collegiate venue, commenting on the cafeteria, auditing classes, and mentioning the student-run bagel shop behind the black backdrop partition beside the stage. He also threatened to issue a pop quiz after the show (with letter grades—no pass/fail).

In between the welcome stage banter, Miller and the Believers—guitarist Tommy Borscheid, bassist Greg Beshers, and drummer Angela Webster—playing to a packed and well-mannered cafeteria, turned in hard-hitting musical essays featuring songs from Miller’s new record and his first solo release, The Instigator, interspersed with reworkings of several Old 97’s favorites. While The Believer and Instigator material captured the melodic magic and energy of Miller’s current pop mindset, the 97’s reinterpretations seemed somehow lacking. Live favorites like “Rollerskate Skinny,” “King of All of the World,” “Buick City Complex,” and “Lonely Holiday” came off more like competent covers than Miller-proprietary reconfigurations, which begs that whole duck folkism. It walks and quacks like that thing, but it’s not quite the same; it’s not Rhett, Murry, Ken, and Phil. To be fair, Miller is to be commended for extending his reach and exploring the depths of his songwriting skills. He’s much too good a songwriter not to, and The Believer is proof of that.

Highlights of this tour stop featured the inclusion of The Believer’s best tracks, “My Valentine,” “Help Me Suzanne,” “Singular Girl,” “Meteor Shower,” and the swooningly upbeat “Brand New Way,” a song that could save the world if we could just get it into the right hands. Another album highlight, the Miller/Rachael Yamagata duet “Fireflies,” fell flat live under the weight of drummer Webster’s frail substitute vocals. It’s safe to say the source of her power is reserved for attacking her floor tom, not in lilting out an introspective country waltz. Later, an acoustic solo segment showcased Miller’s exquisite vocals and melodic phrasing on Old 97’s catalog hits “Designs on You,” “Melt Show,” and “Question,” which, for extra credit, featured a verse sung in French. Who knew?

Longtime Old 97’s fans have witnessed the evolution of Miller from a short-haired, bespectacled acoustic guitar strummer with a smooth voice and keen ear for Texas-tinged turns of phrases—warbling about love, loss, and beer—to an all-out indie pop-rocker on the fringes of pop stardom and comfortable with his cult status. And that’s fine with fans that don’t want to share him. We’ll take him under our wing and listen to him quack in any arrangement.

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