Monday, January 21, 2013

The Concert Series - Part VII: Rhett Miller and Black Prairie

So back in April of last year I concluded my concert series which consisted of six reviews of a series of shows I saw over the course of a month and a half.  The fact that I “concluded” the series was somewhat arbitrary, but mostly because I was done seeing shows for the time.  Since then I have moved north and now live the D.C./Baltimore area and I’m excited since there will be many more shows coming through here than there were in Florida. 

This past Friday night I headed to the Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia with my brother Mike and his buddy Pat to see a solo acoustic performance by Old 97’s front man Rhett Miller.  I have been a pretty big fan of the Old 97’s for about ten years now and in all of those years I have only seen them live once in what was probably the most crowded show I have ever been to.  I can’t be sure, but I’d venture to say that no fewer than ten fire codes had been violated that night.  Despite the fact that they haven’t really released an album that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed since 2001, the stuff they’d done up until and through that album has been some of the best stuff I’ve ever heard.  Rhett Miller and bass player Murray Hammond have a gift for writing some great pop/rock songs and their voices compliment each other very well on their harmonies. 

Miller has also released a number of solo albums and though they are not as good as those earlier Old 97’s albums he has some gems in all of them that showcase what he is still capable of.  I’m not sure what it is that the band doesn’t grab me as much as it once did.  Maybe it’s the fact that they have run out of as many ideas as they once had, or maybe I’m more critical now but for me there is just something missing here.  Having said all that, I was very excited to see this performance particularly because of the modest $20 ticket price and knowledge that the venue would afford me a great viewing spot no matter where I was.  I jumped at the opportunity to snag some tickets. 

The morning of the show, I received a phone call from Mike at 7:20 and I answered it quickly since this was a very odd time for him to be calling me.  I was at work on morning duty in the cafeteria of the high school at which I work (I know, it’s super early.  But I’m also home at 3:00 every day too, so I got that going for me).  Anyway, I answered my phone worried about what emergency might have befallen my older brother and he asked me if I had seen who was opening the show for Miller.  Slightly taken aback, and relieved, I told him I didn’t really notice.  He replied that it would be a band called Black Prairie which is a relatively new bluegrass/folk band that is comprised of three members of the Decemberists including Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee.  I admitted I had never heard of them, but that I was pretty excited since it is rare thing to be familiar with an opening act.  Granted, I had never heard any of their songs, but just knowing who was involved sounded promising.  I became even more excited for the show.

We arrived at the venue before they opened the doors which meant we got to hang back at the bar and grab a beer.  Not many people had arrived yet and we were even able to hear the sound check and it was clear that Miller was going to play with Black Prairie at some point because you could hear them all play together and hear Miller giving them instructions on how to play some of his tunes.  When they opened to the doors we made our way to the front of the stage and that’s where we stayed the entire show.  Mike suggested at one point that maybe we should have taken a few steps back to allow the shorter people behind us get a better view as the three of us are all at least six feet tall.  While I understood his thoughts on this matter I could not condone such an action.  I rarely get to see shows from the very front and we were the ones who got there early enough so as far as I was concerned, those shorter people behind us would just have to deal.  As far as getting a good position in a general admission venue for a concert, I’m of the opinion that it’s every man for himself.

On the floor of the stage right in front of us we could see the set list for Black Prairie and the words and chords for Miller’s song “Our Love” which for me is just a stellar pop song.  Apparently, this would be one of the songs they would all play together.  It also reminded me of a story my crazy music fanatic uncle, JB, tells of a show he once saw from the front row (for the life of me I can’t remember who it was).  Evidently, as the show ended he reached for the set list in front of him while a much younger female fan reached for it at the same time.  JB employs the “every man for himself” theory even stronger than I do and he snatched it away from her.  This was an action that caused her to say something to the effect of “Oh, no you didn’t!!!”  and JB replied “Oh yes I did!!!”  She then decided to go the more mature and socially acceptable route and shouted “OH YOU ARE SOOO GAY!!!” to which JB retorted “OH YOU’RE RIGHT!  I AM SOOOO GAY!!!”  What could she say to this?  Say what you want about JB’s actions, I’m sure he still has that set list (and it makes for an excellent story too).

After a while, Black Prairie came on the stage and began their set which I found to be one of the, if not the greatest opening act sets I have ever seen.  They played an interesting variety of songs including bluegrass, folk, polka, and old-timey Irish sounding tunes.  Chris Funk mostly played the dobro, Jenny Conlee played the accordion, and they were accompanied by the drummer and bassist from the Decemberists, as well as a guitarist, and a fiddle player who was also the lead singer.  Her presence there was just another example of how a woman can become ten times more attractive if she plays an instrument in a great band (extra bonus points if she sings too).  

What made this performance so great was how surprised I was by it.  I didn’t know any of the songs (save the set closing cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same”) but they were all so good and had a great variety.  One of their songs was this polka sounding folk jam that was all over the place.  It sounded like they just changed keys in the most random places.  It kept you guessing the whole time and though it sounded off here and there, for some reason it still worked. 

But by far the best part was when the band went into this mellowed out Irish-like folk song and the lead singer sang into a microphone that made her voice echo and sound all fuzzed out.  She sang a few creepy verses accompanied by an accordion and autoharp which in and of itself was great because she was singing this song right in front of me as that was where that particular microphone was standing.  But what intrigued me the most was the instrument she was holding which was shaped like a violin with one major difference; protruding from its side was what appeared to be the bell of a trumpet.  I have no idea what this instrument is officially called and a relatively in-depth Google search proved to be useless in my attempt to find out.  When she started playing it, I looked at Mike and exchanged incredulous looks as if to say to each other “Holy shit!  What the hell is going on?!”  She started playing along to the music and of course, it sounded like how you’d think a violin shaped trumpet would sound.  It was cool as all get out.

Their set ended and Mike made the comment that we could have gone home at that moment and felt totally satisfied.  I very much agreed with that assessment which made me even more excited to see Miller’s performance.  He came out to the stage with a whiskey in hand, greeted the crowd, and began the set with the opening song to his most recent album and the show was on.  I thought he did an excellent job of mixing up his material.  He included Old 97’s songs from a variety of their albums as well as a good mix of his solo stuff.  His performance was filled with energy as he pounded away on his acoustic guitar that he surprisingly never broke a string on (until one of the last songs) and never really needed to tune all that much.  He was able to take songs that you wouldn’t think would work acoustically and make them work, all the while getting as into them as possible with his somewhat odd and goofy looking dance that he always seems to employ when he plays live.

As the set moved on, he seemed to get more and more into his performance.  He rarely took a break in between songs and would just go from one tune right into the other.  Soon, his whole head became a big ball of sweat and his hair and shirt became soaked.  Surprisingly, he never reached up to wipe the sweat away or to move the hair out of his eyes.  He just kept playing ferociously on his guitar and any attempt to get the sweat out of his face appeared to be in the head-banging he was doing.  My favorite part of his show had to be when he utilized a sort of half windmill on his guitar.  Rather than going all Pete Townsend on his guitar with the windmill being based at the shoulder, Miller’s windmill started at his elbow which made much more sense for an acoustic guitar.  I’ve seen a lot of performances over the years.  I’ve never seen someone windmill like that before.  

At one point the pick Miller was using flew from his hand in the middle of a song and landed on the stage just a few feet in front of me.  I stood there looking at it wondering if it would be cool if I just reached out and took it.  Part of me wanted to act all cool as if it was no big deal and that I did not have to stoop so low as to be that guy who gets his jollies out of something as insignificant and small as a freaking guitar pick.  Plus, what if Miller needed that later?  I couldn’t deprive him of something he may need for the performance just so I can feel all special for having collected this tiny piece of plastic.  Of course, that thought was kind of dumb as Miller no doubt had any number of picks with him and as I stood there for a few minutes having this internal debate with myself, some lady next to me reached out and snatched it.  Random lady – 1, Matt – 0.

Towards the end of his set, Miller brought out Black Prairie to join him on a few songs including the Old 97’s “Broadway”, Miller’s “Our Love” and a cover of “California Stars” which was a nice treat.  I stood there during this performance taking in the moment and thought to myself “I am in the front row watching Rhett Miller and most of the Decemberists play a song written by Wilco, Billy Bragg, and Woody freaking Guthrie!!!”  Miller announced that this was the first time Black Prairie was playing with him on this tour and Mike made the comment they probably chose that song to play together since it was so simple.  While that may be true, it doesn’t make it any less cool.  Some of the best songs are the simplest ones.

I recently watched an interview with Jack White conducted by Conan O'Brien that Kevin sent to me and it was absolutely phenomenal.  It's a little long clocking in at an hour and 15 minutes, but it is so worth your time if you're interested.  During the interview, White lamented the fact that we're in this age now where we're all using our phones to message and tweet and text and video every moment of our lives.  He witnesses this all the time during live shows and is amazed at how people are so dedicated to their mobile devices and they get lost in the moment and therefore are not able to appreciate it as much as they used to.  I don't mean to get into a huge debate about this, though his point is a good one.  However, during this moment of the show, I could not help but capture some of it on video.  Yeah, I'm guilty of White's charges here, but there's also something to be said for posterity.  And watching this now, I actually wish I filmed it longer.

Unfortunately, even the best concert experiences can be tainted by some drunk-ass fan.  During one of the latter performances with the whole band, some tiny younger drunk chick with some nasty BO made her way up front right next to me and started “dancing” all over the place (including on my foot).  On two separate occasions she turned to me and grabbed both my arms and started dancing with me.  I did my best join in a bit while trying to convey that this was not something I was comfortable doing.  Plus, her BO became much more prominent to me when she did this.  Seriously, enjoy yourself and even stomp on my foot here and there.  But don’t force me into your shenanigans.  And for God’s sake use some freaking deodorant!

Miller closed out the show with an acoustic performance of the Old 97’s “Timebomb” which I thought would be hard to pull off since it is more of a raucous electric rocking track on the album, but of course, he was able to make it great on acoustic.  The show ended and I was just so glad to have been there.  As Miller left the stage I looked at a pad of paper in front of me that appeared to be a mini set list with some chords on it.  It was what members of Black Prairie used to ensure they knew what they were doing while playing Miller’s songs.  I reached out for it, tore the top sheet off the pad, put it in my pocket, turned to Mike and said; “I am so gay.”

Throughout the entire performance, Miller showed a lot of energy and seemed very appreciative of the small crowd before him.  He worked hard for every second he was out there and at some point, I started thinking about how great it was that I was able to see an artist I have admired so much for so long in such a small venue from the front row.  It’s in moments like these that I truly appreciate acts like Nickleback and Kenny Chesney and One Direction, and Katy Perry.  I pretty much have zero interest in any of them whereas the masses can’t get enough.  So while those acts are selling out massive arenas and stadiums, I can see Rhett Miller and most of the Decembersits right up front for 20 bucks.  So thank you, Chad Kroeger.  And if at anytime in the future you hear me bitching about any of those huge bands and how much I hate them, please remind me that without them experiences like this would not exist.  Oddly enough, It's so much harder to be gay at a Nickleback show.


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