Two nights of Rhett Miller. If tonight is only half as good as it was last night it will still be one of the best shows of the year. Last night it was violaleeblue and me at Maxwell’s. I’d forgotten how long that walk was from the PATH station. We sat at the bar to catch our breath and talked for a bit while we waited for the doors to open. I could see Rhett walking back and forth from the club to green room.
We got a seat inside on the steps in the back of the room. It struck me that I’d also forgotten how small the room is. It is the perfect size with great sound and any band that gets to play there should be thrilled.
Opening was The Spring Standards. I choose to sit during their set – it wasn’t very crowded and I could hear fine; I just couldn’t see anything. The first thing I noticed were the very pretty harmonies. Heather Robb, James Cleare and James Smith share vocals and drumming/percussion with the two Jameses on guitar and bass. Robb was on keyboard. She also introduced a Noah, who isn’t listed on any site as being part of the band, so I’m not sure what he was playing on stage. They mentioned that Rhett had produced their first EP and they said they enjoyed touring with him – one of the James joked, “Come on. Look at him. Wouldn’t you want to spend every night with him?” Then there were more jokes about collecting vials of Rhett’s sweat and whether it would give you superpowers or immortality.
None of The Spring Standards songs stayed with me. Tonight I’ll watch in addition to listening but I don’t think that their music moves me. They are one of those bands who has found success selling their songs to TV shows and they’ve been the openers for a lot of top acts.
Rhett is promoting his new cd recorded with The Serial Lady Killers and special guest Rosanne Cash on one song and Heather Robb on backing vocals on other songs. I’m never sure what I’m going to get when he tours with this band. You know what you’re getting with Rhett solo or the Old 97’s. The Old 97’s have been together for so many years that there is a playfulness on stage that only happens with old dear friends. Rhett solo is as if he’s willing all the energy of the Old 97’s into his body so that he can give us 400% all on his own. With the Serial Lady Killers, Rhett can relax a bit because the others have it – Tommy Borscheid (guitar), Greg Beshers (bass), and Angela Webster (drums) – so he only has to give his more than 100%. And, like I’ve said before, the dynamics are different since he is in charge and not treated like the kid brother.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the crowds are generally smaller for The Serial Lady Killers shows. An Old 97’s show or a Rhett solo show will sell out but last night there was room on the floor to move around. It wasn’t sold out and not packed.
The two-hour set was a mix of songs from the new cd, other solo songs, and Old 97’s songs. The crowd could have been quieter when he was playing the new songs but that always seems to be a lot to ask of an audience.
Rhett has a new electric guitar, which he proudly showed off for some of the songs. He didn’t talk a lot and didn’t drink much. He said that there were 30 songs on the setlist and after going over it they added a few more. So it was a night packed with music.
“Barrier Reef” was performed the new way – as if the Ramones were singing it. “Out of Love” would not be out of place on a surf music compilation. Rhett mentioned that they would be doing a lot of recording and promotion in NYC today and it would include recording a song for the 70th birthday tribute album for Jimi Hendrix. The band performed a version of “Manic Depression” (that they had just learned) that channeled Bill Black and Scotty Moore – all you needed was Elvis on the vocals and it was a perfect rockabilly song.
Heather Robb joined Rhett for three songs including “Fireflies.” She had performed it once before with him (in Pittsburgh the night before) and apparently when spacey or frustrated she yells out curses. This time there was no cursing – she got through the song beautifully adding a warmth that I think is missing from the original version.
The first encore song was “Question.” As the band quietly strummed the intro, Rhett said he had a crazy friend Felix in the audience. There was a pause and everyone was looking around and then suddenly this guy waved his hand and said, “I’m here!” As the band kept strumming, Felix got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend. As she said yes and they kissed, the band and the audience starting singing the song. I was getting chills – it was a very sweet moment. Shows with Rhett just seem to be made of perfect moments.
With Heather Robb and band
By Carene Lydia Lopez