My weekend of Milwaukee concerts began with a Friday night Rhett Miller show at Shank Hall. Though I was a Shank Hall novice, I felt at home as soon as I walked in the door. It was classic midwestern style; I could easily imagine fish fries or bingo games being held there on off nights. The Spinal Tap theme added to the general ambiance.
The cocktail seating in front of the small stage brought back memories of the first time I ever saw Rhett, at the Madison Music Awards in 2003. That was a seated pit show at the Barrymore (I know; what?) and had previously marked the only time I'd ever watched Rhett or the Old 97's from a chair. I did miss dancing during the fast songs, but there was much leg tapping and chair bouncing. And the seats did little to diminish the crowd's singalong enthusiasm.
As typical for a solo performance, the show was a laid-back affair. The staples were played with gusto - "Question" with the verse en français, "Rollerskate Skinny," "Time Bomb" - but Rhett also mined the back catalog for a few rarer nuggets. He introduced one song as something he almost never plays, though people yell out for it a lot. "Maybe they yell for it because they don't think I can play it." The song, as it turns out, was "Ray Charles," and he certainly can play it. It was a welcome treat, and one that surprised everyone - apparently including the guy who had requested it before the show. Despite some jokes about the fourth wall, Rhett also honored a few more requests from the audience. One was another tune I haven't heard much live, "St. Ignatius." Also as typical for a solo performance, there was some amusing banter. Rhett shared tips on convincingly speaking a foreign language (choose an ethnic cartoon character and try to sound exactly like it). His possibly sexist overuse of the word "girl" in lyrics was discussed, and why he's absolutely fine with that. Friday night's performance of "Big Brown Eyes" was distinguished by Rhett pausing in the middle of the song to tell a story about the Old 97's recording with Waylon Jennings. Let's just say I'll never hear "an elixir" the same way again. Rhett went on to sing the entire third verse in the style of Waylon Jennings. (Hey, he and Jon Brion should get togeth... oh, wait.) All in all, Rhett played 27 songs before the night was through. And after the performance, after changing into a non-sweaty shirt, he come out to chat with fans. As he gamely signed shirts and ticket stubs, posed for pictures, and made friendly small talk, something occurred to me. The majority of performers I've been seeing for more than a year or two have grown to fill bigger and bigger venues. For many of them, informally chatting with fans at the bar after shows is but a distant memory. Then there's the other, sadder end of that spectrum: bands who used to fill large rooms and now introduce the queen of the county fair before playing to a smattering of diehard fans and incidental observers. But Rhett Miller and the Old 97's are playing essentially the same venues I've been seeing them in since 2003. They haven't blown up. They haven't gotten noticeably less popular. If they were to suddenly sell millions of albums and start playing the Overture Center, don't get me wrong, I'd be thrilled for them. And I know long-term consistency in audience size probably isn't something performers exactly strive for. But I have to admit I find it comforting just the same. Rhett Miller Shank Hall Setlist: Like Love Barrier Reef Won't Be Home Wish the Worst Help Me, Suzanne Nobody Says I Love You Anymore Salome No Baby I Four-Eyed Girl Nineteen If It's Not Love Ray Charles Sometimes Question (final verse in French) Designs on You Haphazardly Rollerskate Skinny (dedicated to J.D. Salinger) The Other Shoe I Need to Know Where I Stand Fireflies Dance With Me St. Ignatius Big Brown Eyes (w/Waylon Jennings story, 3rd verse in style of Waylon Jennings) Our Love ------------------- Another Girlfriend Four Leaf Clover Time Bomb