Forget Red Bull. Whatever energy drink Rhett Miller’s on, that’s the one you want. As lead singer for the Old 97’s and as a solo act, Miller seems to be perpetually on the road and, once he plugs in his guitar, he won’t leave the stage until he’s drenched in sweat and a cheering audience is in the palm of his hand.
Luckily, for DC area fans of melodic Americana with accents of pop, alt-country and indie rock, Miller has made a habit of stopping by Northern Virginia’s Jammin Java on recent solo tours. In 2012, he appeared with a backing band he dubbed the Serial Lady Killers (a reference in one of his best songs, “Barrier Reef”).
In 2013, Miller performed with opening act Black Prairie, a fine band comprised of players drawn from Portland, Oregon’s beloved Decemberists. The musicians got along so well that Miller brought them into the studio with him to record last year’s “The Traveler,” a collection of songs that the Old 97’s passed on while making their most recent album, 2014’s “Most Messed Up.” On this night, Miller held the stage alone, reaching a head-shaking, arm-windmilling crescendo on almost every song, and using the time between to charm the crowd with tales of early shows, fatherhood and touring.
A guy of such prolific songwriting talent doesn’t need to promote any one album when he’s on the road so, as is usual with a Rhett Miller solo show, this night’s setlist (you can see the one he had on stage in the slideshow) ranged far and wide among his extensive catalog both with and without the Old 97’s.
Band favorites went as far back as the Old 97’s debut album (“Four Leaf Clover”) and most recent (“Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On”), and included “Time Bomb,” Rollerskate Skinny” and “What We Talk About.”
Solo material ranged from “Lost Without You” and “Jules” to “I Need to Know Where I Stand,” “Singular Girl” and “Our Love.”
The encore bridged both songbooks with “Question,” a sung wedding proposal that appeared on Miller’s own “The Believer” and the Old 97’s “Satellite Rides” release.
While the night’s one cover, of David Bowie’s “Five Years,” was a moving tribute to the recently departed Starman, it was featured six years ago on the Old 97’s “Mimeograph” EP, proving that Miller’s respect has deep roots.
Miller also expressed his musical admiration for opening act, Salim Nourallah, by taking the stage as the evening began to personally introduce his friend and sometime collaborator, who produced “Most Messed Up.” Though not as clever a songsmith as Miller (his most memorable song being a novelty about a girl with two lizards caught in her hair), Nourallah kept the crowd entertained thanks to his clever use of boom box accompaniment and an engaging sense of humor.