Ever-forward energy

Rhett Miller (Wikimedia Commons/Vivian HW Wang)

Today, I play my first show as the “aging hot-shot lead guitarist” of Rhett Miller and the New Paltz All-Stars, a kind of knockabout local live band put together by the Old 97’s front man to help pass the I-can’t-tour age with seasonal shows and hygienically responsible camaraderie.

Don’t worry that my today is your yesterday. You couldn’t have come, anyway. Covid congregation limits, dig.

I’m giddy that my favorite bass player ever Jason will be standing next to me, as he does in several  bands. Rhett’s long-time solo-band drummer Angie is just a straight-up shitkicker, with loads of finesse. We’ve practiced four times in a garage, trying to nail down the forms of nearly 20 tunes. Under normal circumstances and in ordinary times, today’s show might be a bit premature, but I welcome that brand of adventure, the imperative to make it happen in the moment.

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Rhett’s vibrant, probing, ever-forward energy invests even his slowest and loveliest songs with a downhill quality, the exact opposite of the resigned tempos, sad-dog lassitude, and recessive grooves at which I tend to excel. It’s not a Jerry-Garcia-meets-Joey-Ramone juxtaposition, but not that far off.

Sometimes I think I am good at tricky stuff but crap at the essentials, and this band is unwittingly tailored to tease out the slop in my playing, the poor right hand, the dubious internal metronome, and the abiding proclivity for flubs. I am not complacent about these flaws; I do work on them, but at a certain age you just have to understand that they are built into the hardware. In all, they become part of a voice, a voice with sweet spots and no-fly zones, optimal and less optimal contexts, deep resources and firm limitations.

A longtime New Paltz resident, Rhett has played a strange role in my musical life, totemic in a way in a second chapter that the roundly depressed me of 2004 never saw coming.

The very first Sweet Clementines show in 2007 was opening for him at the Cunneen-Hackett Center. My first show as a member of the Trapps in 2010 was opening for him at the Towne Crier. He’s been a generous supporter of my endeavors for over a decade, lending verbiage for press kits, signing on to headline benefits, and taking a lead vocal turn on a song by my side project Macrofone. He is also a legendarily decent, open-hearted cat, and if there has ever been any rock-star-meets-plebe awkwardness in our relationship it has issued from me alone.

What prevails at the end of the day — literally, the end of this very day — are the tunes. A songwriter who has stocked 12 Old 97’s records and six solo records with winners, he’s got a million of them. One can only wonder what his discard pile looks like.

I suppose anyone who has made a dent on the nation’s musical consciousness will always be married to certain batches of songs, the ones that registered culturally at their time of peak resonance. Rhett has a bunch of those — “Question,” Timebomb,” “Our Love,” etc. He owns them with love and gratitude that they ever occurred to him. He never seems wearied by the reductive process of having some hits. Even Pete Townshend complains that FM whittled his catalogue down to nine pertinent songs.

But here’s the thing. Any objective consideration of Rhett’s recent work, in his years leading up to a certain age we don’t discuss, reveals that the dude is only getting better. 2018’s The Messenger is one his most daring and vibrant solo albums to date, one that stretches the boundaries of his songwriting voice. All of The Old 97’s recent records are just blisteringly good, reveling in musical brotherhood and seasoned, second-nature craft.

And it is pretty obvious why he is having this “late” career renaissance, and why the world has noticed. No, not work ethic and drive. He has those in abundance, but that’s a drab way to describe what strikes me as nothing more or less than simple joy, wide-open wonder at what his creative process may still have to tell him. That’s the part that is most inspiring to me, as I race toward another certain age that we really don’t discuss.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.