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Monday, June 18, 2012

Planes, Trains and Automobiles 
or Rhett-a-paloosa/Francis Dunnery concert week

Okay, so sometimes as a music fan you get lucky. Really lucky.

My vacation week coincided with not one, not two, but a shit load of Rhett Miller East Coast concerts, topped off with a rare Francis Dunnery stop at Philly's Tin Angel.

Yeah. Really lucky.

The Rhett shows were the start of his tour in support of his fifth solo CD release, The Dreamer which dropped on Tuesday, June 5. The Dreamer was financed in part through crowd funding via PledgeMusic. The term "crowd funding" always reminds me of crowd surfing. You know, when a trusting singer takes a leap of faith into the arms of his screaming minion. With both, the artist puts his life in his fans' collective hands, literally in the latter. This disc is a more rootsy, countrified sound than his prior more pop/rock oriented albums. There's a lot of pedal steel, y'all. A lot. There are also a lot of ladies on this LP. There's also an awful lot to like.

Unlike his other efforts (which I love wholeheartedly), this one is thematic, like a carefully crafted mixtape. Forever the romantic, the first half is all about the search for idealized love, not finding it and ultimately losing the prospects at hand. The melancholy accentuated by the lonely wail of the pedal steel. It's sprinkled with lovelorn gems like, "You were not like the rest, until you left", "This ain't love, but it ain't bad. When you leave I'll be sad sad sad", and a resounding chorus two-thirds through which sums up the theme of the entire album "What do I know about love?" The latter half is lighter, more hopeful. The recognition that the love found is by no means perfect, but somehow it works and is worth the effort to keep going. It ends with an optimistic sweetness. Anyway, maybe I'll pen a proper review later. All I can say now is, being a pop girl, the country pedal threw me at first listen, but I have grown fonder and fonder of his new CD with each spin in the player. I like it's simplicity. A lot. The pedal adds a palatable longing to the sadness of his brilliant lyrics. And let's face it, this literary wordsmith is all about the stories. And man, are these new stories wonderful live.

Go buy it from the man himself! You won't be sorry.

Anywho, I could have traveled to every single stop on this tour featuring his secondary band, The Serial Lady Killers (Tommy Borscheid-guitar; Greg Beshers-bass & Angela Webster-drums), save the last in Boston, but even I felt that was over-the-top-excessive-scary-stalker-groupie territory. I suppose that proves I'm not a total loss yet, right?


Had I done so, I'm certain there would have been a restraining order with a zip code-wide buffer slapped on my middle-aged ass. As it were, I settled for being a nuisance at three consecutive performances: Pittsburgh, Hoboken and New York.

finally used my new nikon
it's a work in progress
I cannot tell you how excited I was Rhett was coming to my hamlet! Neither he, nor the 97's bothered to make us a tour stop in 2011, and I'm a little bitter about it. I was ECSTATIC to have the opportunity to watch him sing, half-Townsend windmill and christen the crowd with every thrash of his magnificent, sweaty mane within the borders my home town.

just two dudes having a blast
I know I say this all the frigging time, but I loveloveLOVE this man and his big, big brain. And hair. And eyes. And crooked smile. And ginormous talent. And and and... I'm always dragging new people to the cult concert. There were a dozen in our group alone that evening in the sold out club.

Usually Rhett takes great care to make sure the set list is different from show to show, which is why so many of us go to more than one stop on a tour. However, in a brief chat between acts, the lovely blue-eyed one mentioned the two-hour, 31-song set wouldn't change from night to night except for his solo acoustic break midway. Unheard of for a 97's gig, but perfectly understandable considering the SLKs couldn't possibly learn his entire 14 album catalog prior to the run.

The master list
Ray Charles was replaced by Niteclub (a request)
However, "Firday" was the bomb
He seemed downright apologetic about it. What a sweetheart. Always thinking about the fans. I mean, come on! Two hours and 31 songs?!? Every night? I think we can forgive the Groundhog Day factor. Besides, having watched them perform three nights in a row (I know. That sounds crazy even for me.), the tunes may have been the same, but the experiences were unique. Rhett's interpretations were fresh and became bolder as the week progressed, culminating with the raw, growly power befitting a bona fide Rockstar at the New York Bowery show.

have i ever told you how much i love this man?

Back to the Burgh...

Club Cafe is an intimate venue to begin with, but the remodel removed the tables so we were literally standing inches from the stage. So close to so much musical greatness.


The Spring Standards were the opening act on this leg. Geo and I adore Heather and the two Jameses. (read about them here) They're definitely an opener worth the effort of getting to the club on time. They have a rich sound full of beautiful harmonies, each member playing multiple instruments throughout. They are a lot of fun to watch, and are just plain, nice people. Rhett produced their first EP, No One Will Know back in 2008. On more than one night, they playfully joked about Mr. M's signature luscious locks. In Hoboken they teased about the possible healing powers of collected vials of Rhett Sweat and whether it would give one superpowers. Or maybe it's the fountain of youth Ponce De Leon was searching for, lo those many moons ago. I mean, c'mon! Look at him. He doesn't age. Not one bit.

at maxwell's
cooking up some superpowers
Anywho, when it came time for the man of the hour to take the stage, I didn't know what to expect from this incarnation. Angela may have been a bit of a task master, keeping the night rolling along, barely waiting for the final note of the last song to fade before counting the guys into the next tune, but Rhett was definitely in charge. They clearly looked to him for cues. His affable nature created an ease among the talented bandmates. A playfulness. They were having a hell of a fun time together and it showed.

rockin' tats
I have to admit it was weird hearing Old 97's favorites delivered by the hands of others. I kinda felt like I was cheating on Murry, Ken and Philip by dancing and singing to these versions, but with Rhett still at the helm it was just a slightly different kind of party. Barrier Reef took on a really cool, rapid-fire punk beat from the chorus on.

Kick. Ass.

Although I still prefer Rhett as a lone troubadour, it was way cool to finally hear his solo work (Things That Disappear, My Valentine and 4 Eyed Girl) backed by a full band. Bottom line is, whether he's playing with the 97's, the SLK or alone in a darkened theater, just him and his guitar, Rhett's performance is the same magnificent 200% sweat equity.

The final element of his acoustic set midway through each night was Time Bomb, the signature 97's closer. Given proper headroom in a venue, it starts with Rhett leaping from Philip's bass drum and ending with them all expending every last drop of energy flailing in front of a roaring crowd left wanting more. This time around his interpretations were quieter, more controlled in both Hoboken and New York. He commented halfway through how difficult it was for him not to rock out. It was evident he had to consciously curb his instincts in order to treat us all to a lovely, restrained version. In Pittsburgh, he gave up on the introspection and went balls-to-the-wall after completely flubbing the third verse.

Pretty amusing considering he has sung that particular hit at EVERY SHOW. Even he couldn't help poking fun at himself for butchering a song he can play in his sleep. Maybe it was the unnaturalness of trying to sing such a blistering tune quietly that threw him off, or perhaps he was just thinking how great he is.

Each night Heather Robb of Spring Standards (who looks almost exactly like Buffy) came out to harmonize on a couple of the songs she recorded for the Dreamer, Picture This and Long Long Long.
Seriously. Buffy, right?

In Pittsburgh, Rhett called an audible of his duet, Fireflies. They apparently had not rehearsed it, but gave it a go. You have to watch to the end.

Sweet, effervescent Heather dropped the bomb, yo! Right on, Girlfriend! In Hoboken, she claimed she lets fly with the swears when she panics. Whatev. It was pretty awesome.

As I said, each show had it's own special moment. In the dark, narrow hall of Maxwell's in Hoboken, Rhett peddled the opening chords to Question while his "crazy friend, Felix" bent to one knee (an impressive feat considering they were standing on bleachers), and proposed to his girlfriend, illuminated only by a small flashlight pointed towards them by Jason Garner, the tech. She said yes. She cried. They kissed. Everyone sang to them. It was all very sweet.

Awwwww. Baby's first show proposal.

The other special moment came at the acoustic break when Rhett pulled out the music stand, and sang the never-before-heard-live bonus song, Marcy Anne for his dear friend of the same moniker. She was FLOORED! In fact, you can hear her Wooing from the back.

It's such a fabulous bonus song that will never be played live by the 97's. As he stated before beginning, the best thing about the solo part of the show is he "can play whatever the fuck he wants." He followed it up with a song she nagged him to write, Let the Whiskey Take the Reins. A veritable Marcy Anne One-Two punch! He played Marcy Anne again the next evening at the Bowery along with a magnificent version of Wish the Worst. I'm sorry I didn't record Marcy Anne that last evening because he really had it down and killed it, big time. But, honestly, I just wanted to sing along with him (and her) this time.

There always seems to be a full day of promotional appearances involving Mr. M when he is in New York. Friday was no different. One of the bands' stops was at Rolling Stone where they recorded several songs including a cover of Manic Depression as part of a tribute to Jimi Hendrix' 70th birthday this year, explained here.

I think Mr. Hendrix would approve of the punky train engine rhythm. And check out the groovy new lighting system at the Bowery. Cool, no? They even had a mirror disco ball that filled the room with appropriate flying lights during Fireflies.

disco ball fireflies
(thanks to Joslyn Hansen)
For the Bowery show, I was fortunate enough to be invited up to the VIP balcony with Marcy and Tracey. I'm usually front and left center (mole side) for any Rhett show, but this night I was grateful for the opportunity to sit (for the opener at least). It was also wonderful not to have to crane my neck upward for the third night in a row. I'm old. And brittle. My neck could snap at any time. No shit.

It was a blast to sing (loudly) and dance (awkwardly, although not nearly as awkwardly as the woman doing the Elaine Benis across the room) with two of my favorite girlfriends while watching the packed house of fan faithful enjoy the hell out of my favorite rockstar.

It was an exhilarating three day run, but like so many good things in life, it is now a cherished memory to be played out over and over in my mind until the next time our paths cross.

Special thanks to my Sherpa, Tracey for guiding my sorry, directionally-challenged ass across the river to Hoboken, and to Marcy for the ride back.

Thanks to my friend Noreen for the use of her videos from Pittsburgh. You can watch more at her YouTube channel here.

courtesy of Noreen McBride
front and center

There are a veritable ton of videos on my channel on the YouTube here. There's some good stuff especially from the City Winery. Feel free to look around. And no, it's not ALL the blue-eyed lovely. There are videos of lots of other bands, too, wise ass.

This was the "Planes" version of vacation. Next up, the train to Philly, Francis and my ever-loving, long suffering soul mate, Geo.