Baby-faced Rhett Miller harbors an “old soul”. His lyrics, judging from his four solo albums, are deeply personal. Nevertheless, aside from penning songs that touch and question, he is the consummate showman. The word charisma barely scratches his unbevelled surface. Standing among a pocketful of college-aged giddy girls and some forty-somethings dressed to the nines on a drizzling Friday night, we see Rhett Miller through the glass door. His startling deep blue eyes catch our gaze as he waves shyly, and a few girlish giggles resound from the opposite side of the glass and echo like ping-pong balls across a mesh net.
“He talked to us at the last show,” the girl with the black ponytail recollected. She heatedly half-whispered this to her friend, though she knew darn well we were all within earshot. In gentrified Lincoln Park, the Park West venue boasts a large listening room with comfortable black sofas, tables and chairs. Terra cotta walls surround them and a giant disco ball floats under the ceiling. A wisecracking security guard checks IDs. “It’s going to be a packed house,” he says.
Rhett Miller and his touring band, “The Serial Lady Killers” who also toured with Miller when he promoted The Believers album thrust themselves on stage. Tommy Borscheid is on lead guitar, and there’s Greg Beshers on bass and Angela Webster on percussion.
Rhett, wearing a powder blue, short-sleeved shirt stands in-between Borscheid, the heavily tattooed, muscular lead guitarist whose arms drip from a solid black short-sleeved tee. Bassist Beshers’ image harkens back to the days of gun-smokin’ Wyatt Earp, with his starched-white shirt and rolled-up sleeves anchoring a black vest.
Webster is the happiest percussionist I’ve seen in some time. Her blonde ponytail chases the sticks as she eagerly hunkers down to the task at hand of driving the tempo generously on each song.
Miller says, “Hello, Chicago. Thanks for coming to Park West.” His gleaming red electric is draped across his lean body. Unruly strands of hazel hair frame his melting blue eyes. He sings, “We are all alone in this world from cradle to grave and maybe after that” as “Like Love” drifts and tapers off in seductive fuzz after Borscheids’ emotive solo. “Like Love”, “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore”, “I Need To Know Where I Stand”, and “Happy Birthday Don’t Die” are standouts on Miller’s June ’09 self-titled release, which though Miller admits is “dark”, the album is consistently universal, exploring disappointment, longing and unrequited love.
Miller continues his elegiac tributes to love singing “You make me feel like the King of The World”, a heart-thumping Old 97’s (the Dallas-based alt-country band Miller fronted and formed in 1993) staple.
Mid-song Miller spins his arm around quickly like a broken helicopter blade, and this happens several times during the evening’s two- hour plus set. Only a baby sparrow preparing to lift off a weathered branch would match his appendages’ single-minded determination.
While his other hand remains firmly transfixed to the neck, this mystical mojo hand continues its centrifugal voyage, finally gracing his six-string with rich chunky strums. “The Serial Lady Killers” make dynamic use of their voices and their harmonies tonight are tight and flawlessly executed. Even Webster, who doesn’t have a vocal mic, sings along with unbridled glee in her illustrious, contagious way.
Miller is a constant ball of effusive energy, bobbing up and down and flashing that shy, embracing smile. It’s clear that this band loves to entertain. After being handed his acoustic guitar, Miller’s warm voice escalates to a tearful falsetto when he sings the ‘02 hit from the Instigator album, “Come Around”. As he sings “Am I gonna be lonely for the rest of my life if you don’t come around”, we want to shout, “Yeah, come around. We’re not going anywhere else, Rhett. You know damn well we’re not. We’re in the hallowed palm of your aura.”
After some grateful applause and yelps, Miller faces the crowd head on. “We’re in Lincoln Park, right?” It’s as if we’ve been carried away on the Concorde and landed. He speaks to us like we’re his best friends who have picked him up from the O’Hare airport, and who now sprawl on cozy beanbag cushions ready to exchange life stories. Hell, we’ve already got our hands in the fridge reaching for a cold one.
“Why am I refusing temptation when it’s all around me / It would be easy to say yes” he rattles on in “Refusing Temptation”. “In my dream I will remember you loving me / Oh, but in real life this is not over” he admits. This gem details the challenges musicians face given the ephemeral touring life; flung out there without hearth and without connection.
“Haphazardly” takes on a moody haze and Miller’s voice seems shrouded in despair. “This is what the house feels like without you in it / This is what the bed feels like without you in it,” he murmurs. A subtle, pale light show projects circles across the room.
Miller says, “Some songs I consider too sophisticated for some audiences,” and launches into an infectious train rhythm before adding, “This is Chicago driving blues music.” He says, “Let’s ratchet up the intensity a little bit,” although I have to say that the intensity has been ratcheted up consistently this evening.
“Question” is another retrospective, and then the band launches into “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore” and Miller does the dreamy falsetto so we can swoon in tandem, allowing Borscheid to escalate an acid-rock solo.
“Time waits for no one / We celebrate love when it’s gone / We celebrate life when it’s gone,” Miller sings. The energy is raw and the vocals are penetrating during this rendition of “Lonely Holiday”. The lyrics give pause to goosebumps, and then the voice gives rise to chills. It’s quite the holiday cocktail.
Miller says, “Thanks, Chicago. You guys are fucking great.” We feel fucking great. They launch into “Roller Skate Skinny” and Borscheid and Miller ooze then thrash into each other’s personal space like school kids let out into the playground on spring’s first warm afternoon.
“I’ve got a four-leaf clover” Miller confides. Now that he’s got our attention he asks again, “Why don’t you come and see my four-leaf clover?” The audience gets the joke, loves the song, but wants more. Miller’s sweat-drenched body walks off stage as do his Killers, but incessant screams urge them back. Miller smoothly re-takes the stage and musters a beguiling smile. The country twang commences and not one, but five encores commence.
Miller smirks and tells us, “Trouble with girls like you is you’re so fucking hard to say no to.” This repartee smoothly leads into “Another Girlfriend”, a comical, albeit seriously and superbly structured song.
“I Need to Know Where I Stand” showers us with a warm rush of emotion. “I miss you so much / It hurts me to talk” he sings. Miller and his Killers have played their Texas hearts out tonight and each time he comes up for much-needed air, he explores a new emotional arc – flitting from sensitive ballad to Old 97’s twang to melodious pop effortlessly – his voice at times mellow, when necessary raw and when reflection is required, it conveys confessional wisdom and a familiar Dylanesque persuasion.
From the Instigator album, “Our Love” pulls it all together, as Miller revs up the spinning arm and whispers the warning, “I love so fast.”
Die-hards gather afterwards in the lobby. Miller bops down the stairs and exclaims, “I didn’t know anyone was here or I would’ve come down earlier.” His voice is parched, yet he patiently greets each fan, shakes hands, and asks about each fan’s day. Miller will quickly pack up, navigate Texas, and then breeze through Europe – the shy smile, the rotating arm, the restless strands and the melting blue eyes – hopefully clearing customs.