Steve Earle & Rhett Miller @ Birmingham Town Hall, 5/11/09

Steve Earle was in town last night for an early (solo) date on what looks like an extensive European tour.  He was supported by a name that is new to me – Rhett Miller, another (younger) Texas-born, New York-based singer songwriter.  Whilst comparisons may be invidious, they are also probably inevitable under the circumstances.  What becomes immediately apparent from Rhett Miller’s energetic (solo) set is that the guy has a wry sense of humour.  I won’t pretend to have been able to pick up much of the lyrical content, but there was one song that seemed to be about bedsprings and – specifically – how they might appear from underneath if your wife/lover thinks that you are on your way to Phoenix and is ‘entertaining’ someone else whilst you are hiding under the bed ‘with your pride and a cold steel 45’ or words to that effect.  Miller played a short, entertaining set, but I felt throughout that here was a guy who was not really a part of the whole folk troubadour/singer-songwriter thing but a rock & roll songwriter operating without a band.  It will be interesting to see how his career develops.

Steve Earle looked like a new age country preacher when I last saw him; denims, a healthy outdoor tan- but now he seems to have retreated into a weird hippie look remeniscent of Allen Ginsberg, though I think this might have something to do with forthcoming film & TV appearances. 

Anyway, I have to be honest and say that it seemed like he was ‘phoning it in’ a bit for the opening half-hour of his set.  Then again, perhaps I was just reacting to the fact that his ‘between-song patter’ was almost word for word the same as the KCRW session I reviewed here recently (26 October).  Now I’d like to think that I’m not totally naive about the rock & roll business, having spent several years observing it from the inside, during which time I can recall seeing multiple Bruce Springsteen gigs at which he would perform ‘Independence Day’ with the same elongated spoken intro night after night.  Even so, I had assumed that once the song was over, the performer would relax and respond to the audience between songs in an unscripted fashion.  Not so, at least not for the opening section of this gig, which was largely concerned with extracts from Steve’s recent album of Townes van Zandt covers (‘Townes’).  Eventually, Steve seemed to warm to his task and to the audience, but it took a while.  Life on the road, eh?  Anyway, we got a good selection of TvZ material from ‘Lungs’ through ‘Brand New Companion’ and ‘Pancho & Lefty’ to ‘To live is to fly’

Steve then launched into  his own material from across the years – so we got ‘Taneytown’, ‘Copperhead Road’, ‘The Galway Girl‘  and my favourite ‘Fort Worth Blues’.  To be honest, this part of the show was far more relaxed, so it does make you wonder whether Steve is getting a little bit weary of  the whole ‘Townes’ project, having been promoting the album since the Spring.  Who knows? Anyway, the last half an hour or so was rousing stuff and he seemed far more spontaneous and at ease, so everyone left with a good feeling about the gig.

Finally, when people try and tell you  that rock’n’roll is all about glitz and glamour,  don’t believe a word of it.   Steve Earle was talking between songs about his tour schedule (as musicians will) and rather wearily informed us his next gig was in Kings Lynn……now that’s really far out…..


4 responses to “Steve Earle & Rhett Miller @ Birmingham Town Hall, 5/11/09

  1. Rhett Miller is indeed a rock & roll songwriter operating without a band – at least at the moment. Besides having a well established solo career which stretches back some twenty years, he is also the lead singer of Old 97’s, one of America’s best bands. The song you quoted is “The Other Shoe” off of the band’s seminal 1996 release “Wreck Your Life”.

  2. “Miller played a short, entertaining set, but I felt throughout that here was a guy who was not really a part of the whole folk troubadour/singer-songwriter thing but a rock & roll songwriter operating without a band. It will be interesting to see how his career develops.”

    Rhett Miller left folk behind in the early 90’s, thankfully. Folk is wonderful, but Miller makes a much better rock and roller than he ever would a folkie.

    As far as his career goes, since you mention he’s new to you, I hope you’ll forgive me if I presume ignorance.

    Rhett Miller is the lead singer and songwriter of the (formerly) alt-country band the Old 97’s (they moved firmly out of the alt-country camp and toward straight-up pop/rock–with a few country flavorings–in 1999, but folks still insist on classifying them as such). He has also released 3 solo records, which have all been rather poppy (he also has a record from his high-school days, which he nowadays avoids mentioning–and with reason).

    Miller is a fantastic songwriter when he’s on his game, and a pretty good one even when off. I’ll leave a few links in case you’re interested.

    The single off his most recent solo album (very pop):

    “The Other Shoe” (the murder ballad you mention, from the 97s’ ’96 album “Wreck Your Life”):

    The most recent 97’s album is “Blame it on Gravity,” which can be listened to in its entirety here:

    Of particular interest are “Dance With Me” (the single, pure rock-and-roll) and “Here’s to the Halcyon” (a very folky rocker about a shipwreck and God). You might also like “I Will Remain,” a 60’s-flavored pop treat.

    If you’re more of the country/folk mindset, you might just fall in love with the music of Murry Hammond, the bassist and other songwriter of the Old 97’s. From the album linked above, “The Color of a Lonely Heart is Blue” is a nigh-perfect country song, heartbreaking and beautiful–the kind of song you can (and I have) float from midnight til morning on repeat, sipping whiskey and talking to friends.

    Hammond’s one solo record, “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way,” was (and is) my favorite record of 2008: soft, folky, and haunting–and much more sonically interesting than anything the 97’s have ever done. It can be listened to here:


    Apologies for the mini-essay. I’m always a little too eager to share my musical loves. Perhaps you’ll find something here that you can enjoy.


  3. P.S. I’m worried that my above comment doesn’t adequately represent the 97’s. Their 1997 album “Too Far to Care” is them at the peak of their alt-country-ness. Most people would argue it’s their best, too. It certainly gives a clear picture of what they’re best known for. Of particular interest are “Timebomb,” “Barrier Reef,” and “Four Leaf Clover.”

    It’s a shame this is all poor-quality internet streaming.

  4. Thanks for your comments folks….I am now considerably wiser about Rhett Miller than previously and I thank you both for your comments and your time. It’s great to get some responses on here; reminds me I’m not writing in a vacuum!

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