Best known as the frontman for alt-country stalwarts Old 97’s, Rhett Miller has been unassumingly making great music for about 18 years now. An adept songwriter whose keen mind illuminates the plight of various hard-luck lost souls with clever word play and deft turns of phrase, Miller makes a strong first impression, with songs burrowing themselves into your psyche and staying there for long periods of time. In contrast to annoying earworms that lodge in one’s brain, Miller’s compositions are welcome guests that call out for attention and revisits, sounding as pure and enjoyable with each repeated listen as they did upon first discovery.
Offering a similar vibe of comfort and familiarity is the venerable Los Angeles rock club Largo, where Miller’s good friend and frequent collaborator Jon Brion serves as a sort of artist in residence. With Brion at the helm, Largo turned itself into a must-stop for some pretty incredible musicians over the years. On any given night, Los Angelinos have been able to bask in the glory of sets from (among others) Aimee Mann, Jakob Dylan, Robyn Hitchcock, Fiona Apple, Colin Hay, and the late Elliott Smith. Pretty heavy stuff for an intimate venue that pushed a capacity of 130 on its most crowded evenings. Recently, the club has changed locations, moving down La Cienega to a slightly larger space, but the vibe remains the same, as does the presence of Brion by way of a weekly residency.
The Interpreter was recorded back in 2008 as part of a fundraiser for the club, and it features Miller alone on stage (save for a few appearances by the ubiquitous Brion) armed only with his acoustic guitar and a money collection of cover tracks. While it’s initially a bit of a bummer to not be able to hear any of Miller’s original compositions, it quickly becomes a joy to listen to him embody the performances of others. The Interpreter proves to be an apt name as Miller breezes through the 14-track set with various forms of elegant restraint, ferocious intensity, and charming conviction. His song selections also jibe well with his talents, particularly his winsome take on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”, the reticent and folky reinterpretation of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”, and the hard-changing go at The Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead”, which comes off like a lost Cavern Club outtake. These songs are great, but they play it close to the territory of Miller’s original output. Even more pleasing are the various surprises found throughout the set. The Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” gets recharged as a back-porch strummer before segueing into an equally raucous take on The Ramones’ classic “I Wanna Be Sedated”. David Bowie’s glam-infused “Queen Bitch” benefits from some of Brion’s rollicking country piano fills that help turn the ditty into a harvest-y ’70s-style jam. And most surprising is a cover of a cover, Miller’s beautiful rendering of Jeff Tweedy’s reinterpretation of Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars”.
Throughout the set, Miller’s cheery stage presence is archived with witty and gracious bits of banter, anecdotes, and humorous riffs that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Miller or Old 97’s live. He also goes to great lengths to pay his personal homage to Largo, which helps to make this album somewhat of a historical document as well. The Largo has been so important and so influential in the rock and roll community that owning this disc just feels important and essential, regardless of the performances. It just so happens, though, that Miller is perfect for the gig. He’s a true performer, one capable of stamping his own perspective on essential and groundbreaking works and capturing the feel of legendary surroundings.