If we have begun to take Rhett Miller for granted, shame on us.
The longtime local resident and family man appears in person much as he does on record: eminently likable, leveling his obvious and multiple gifts with good-humored, unaffected self-effacement. (Indeed, self-doubt is one of the great themes of his work.) He always seems to be up for a benefit or a school program; he is generous with the quotes and the cameos for local bands. His songs are clever but not too clever, his singing agreeable as all hell but far from virtuosic.
It is too easy just to give him his due as a fully validated, important figure in the history of roots-rock – one with plenty left to say – and then move along. It is too easy to miss what is and always has been genuinely daring and vulnerable in his music. The Rhett Miller I admire is a writer willing to fall on his face, again and again, in the pursuit of the only things that seem to matter to him: short-lived flashes and epiphanies of emotional/romantic truth expressed with memorable pith, and the ultimately unattainable ideal of the perfect (country-rock) song.
Miller came to fame as the frontman and principal songwriter of the Old 97s, the still-cooking Dallas band that exemplified the rambunctious, poppy and unabashedly amorous side of the No Depression alt/roots movement of the ‘90s. They played yang to the yin of Uncle Tupelo and the more brooding and occluded expressions of the same musical impulse.
Two unmistakable Q factors – his great looks and insanely high likability index combined with the compulsive, prodigious productivity of a genuine ink-stained wretch – marked him as a can’t-miss prospect for a solo career. Since 2002’s The Instigator, Miller’s solo outings have roughly alternated with Old 97s releases: a record/promote/tour cycle that would send most daydreamers scurrying to accounting school.
At first, Miller’s solo work seemed overtly strategized to distance him from the alt/roots milieu; The Instigator and 2005’s The Believer (produced by Jon Brion and George Drakoulias, respectively) presented as slick, modern singer/songwriter affairs with anchors on both coasts but little in between. Those records, especially the latter, really attempted to authenticate the American classicism of Miller’s songcraft, testing the sturdiness of his essentially romantic/melancholic Muse in all manner of production pop settings. Worked for me.
2012’s The Dreamer (recorded locally) found Miller reclaiming roots: not his broad Texas cowpunk roots, it turned out, but his adopted roots. It’s a lovely, haunted work of Ulster County country barn-rock, not too far out of step with the legacy of Levon and the historicity of the Felice Brothers. 2015’s The Traveler continues the roots reclamation and the erasure of the stylistic differences between Rhett Miller and Old 97s, but is something else entirely.
Miller’s Northwest-centric band for this outing is a bit of an aliased supergroup, Black Prairie, featuring members of the Decembrists as well as contributions from Minus 5 buddies Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck. This daring, messy, rumbustious and genuinely dark record darts between some of the biggest, ballsiest (and most despairing) roots-rock that Miller has ever committed and some ultra-exquisite parlor-roots balladry, suggesting that Miller has taken back an influence now from some of the Baroque/folk writers whom he once must have inspired, like Sufjan Stevens or Connor Oberst. These two tendencies – the big, ballsy rock and the parlor fine – collide in the keeper, should-be hit “Escape Velocity.”
Miller is a winning solo performer possessed of a friendly punk enthusiasm and a truly daunting backlog of great songs. Catch him at Daryl’s House in Pawling on Friday, April 29 at 8 p.m. Belle of the Fall opens. Reserved table seating for this show is sold out, but general admission (no guaranteed seating) tickets are still available for $20. Daryl’s House is located at 130 Route 22 in Pawling. For more information, visit www.darylshouseclub.com.
Rhett Miller/Belle of the Fall, Friday, April 29, 8 p.m., $20, Daryl’s House, 130 Route 22, Pawling; www.darylshouseclub.com.