ARTS

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April 28, 2006

Rhett Miller finds a Believer in the crowd at Park West

As Rhett Miller finished up his set with a second encore, the enthusiastic crowd downed their final beers and danced (fairly drunkenly). A bouncer from the security staff at Park West stood resolute in front of the stage, looking a little bored by the ass-shaking women in front of him and the sweaty, crooning songwriter at his back. As the beer bottles collected in greater numbers at the feet of the crowd, the dancing got more enthusiastic and much, much worse. Miller didn’t seem to mind, even if security did.

Rhett Miller splits his time between fronting the successful alt-country band Old 97’s and working as a solo artist. He has been touring in support of his new solo effort, The Believer, which is a cute, witty collection of alt-pop songs about, in Miller’s own words, “sex, war, love and death… but mostly sex.” If Miller thinks that sex is what comes through on the album, he isn’t as astute as his wry lyrics lead critics to think.

Compared to his earlier efforts, The Believer reveals a guy who is finally comfortable with who he’s become and is finding peace in settling down. In the last few years, Rhett Miller has gotten married and started producing offspring, which might be a clue about his new, more sentimental songs. In his earlier career, Miller thrived by writing songs about his own insecurities and drunken hook-ups. But the new album is full of hope, love, and promise—not necessarily classic Miller subjects. The man who once sang, “I believe in love, but it don’t believe in me,” seems to have discovered a new tune—lyrically, at least. Whether or not this will, over time, produce a lame body of new work remains to be seen.

The contrast between the old and new Miller was increasingly clear in his set on Thursday. Accompanied by a backing band—unsurprisingly named the Believers—Miller swayed his hips through a set that featured almost as many Old 97’s songs as solo-release tunes. He played every song off of his new record.

Rhett Miller is a very physically attractive man, but he supplements his appearance with witty, smart lyrics. However, the moment in his career when he realized that people cheered when he turned around and shook his backside must have been a revelatory one. He seems to love every last drunken cheer from the audience. Miller’s awareness of his own appeal doesn’t come off as too self-satisfied or too anxious. It’s playful and cute, and a little bit sarcastic.

Miller started the show with “My Valentine,” an adorable, imploring power-pop song with a very catchy hook and endearing lyrics. “One of you is worth a million of these/ Baby get out on the dance floor,” Miller sang, and the crowd sang back. That rocker was followed directly by the Old 97’s song “Rollerskate Skinny”, which could be about any immature commitment-phobe (“How can you have everything and nothing to lose?”)

The set continued to ricochet between the older, more wistful songs and the newer, more satisfied ones. Miller’s perpetually angry-looking female drummer subbed in for Chicagoan alt-pop star Rachel Yamagata on the beautiful duet “Fireflies,” a nostalgic revision of the song “Nineteen” off the Old 97’s album Fight Songs. “Nineteen” speaks almost apologetically about an age when everyone makes mistakes in relationships, blaming this on immaturity, not personal failings. (“I’ve seen a lot of love go sour/ That’s not our love, see the problem was/ I was only nineteen.”) “Fireflies,” also about a couple of 19-year-olds, takes back that sentiment almost entirely. “Must have had a reason for leaving, it must have been me,” the ex-couple croons, and the more cynical members of the audience rolled their eyes.

Miller seemed to have taken some of his own advice to heart: the bridge of “My Valentine” implores the subject to “smoke some grass, we’ve got to shake our asses.” The ass-shaking was certainly evident, but Miller referenced the other subject as well—fitting on April 20, a day of stoner solidarity. When the Believers left the stage and Miller performed several songs by himself, he began with “Stoned,” which is one of the oldest Old 97s’s songs, a ballad of touring while messed-up. Some members of the audience brandished lighters above their heads.

He also played both English and (slightly mispronounced) French versions of his engagement song “Question” (“Someday somebody’s gonna ask you a question that you should say yes to, once in your life”) during which he relayed a marriage proposal for one member of the audience, and then grinned as a cry of joy was released from the upper balcony. The song has been on some primetime television shows, and it’s a marker of the success inherent in writing really good love songs.

Even when Miller is verging on sappy, he does it with such charm and enthusiasm that one cannot help but get swept away. “I told the band there isn’t such a thing as a weeknight in Chicago!” Miller smirked, and the crowd roared back at him. Miller’s shaggy hair was sweaty at that point, and the sweat was flinging in drops on those drunken (and some sober) dancers. By the final song, everyone there, despite cynical exteriors, certainly believed in love—or at least we believed that Miller believed in it, and that, in some way, was enough.

Opener Garrison Starr was also adorable. With her twang and songs about bad relationships (“In this one, I’m soaked in gasoline and the other person is a ball of fire,” she remarked), Starr charmed the willing members of the audience—but also fell on the deaf ears of some chatty, boozy early arrivals.