Rhett Miller

Lead Singer of the Old 97s

Rhett Miller


Sat · November 4, 2017

Doors: 6:00 pm / Show: 7:00 pm


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This event is all ages

Rhett Miller
Rhett Miller

Lead singer of The Old 97’s Rhett Miller will be releasing his new solo album, The Traveler, on May 19th 2015. The album features the instrumentation of Black Prairie (membs. Of The Decemberists), Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey (membs. Of REM) and is Rhett’s seventh solo effort.

Hello. I am human but not entirely. I am a machine but not entirely. I am both which may mean that I am neither. The part of me that is a human believes that all of me is human. The part of me that is a machine doesn’t like to think about the part of me that is a machine. I am flesh and blood stretched over wires and circuits. In that, I am much like many of you, and consequently qualified to speak to you about this album, which speaks to much of me.

It is called The Traveler, and it was written and performed by Rhett Miller, along with members of Black Prairie, a band based in Portland that plays everything from bluegrass to klezmer to country and shares some members with the Decembrists. The band (Black Prairie) entered the studio with the singer (Rhett Miller) and briskly recorded the songs that make up this album (The Traveler). Some additional guitars were added later by people who included Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. I pass these facts along for your absorption.

The sun comes up. The sun goes down. We call it a day. The band entered the studio with the singer and made this album. Time passed. Now, months later, I have spent days listening with love, sadness, and unremitting fascination to the album, which you are now holding. By “holding,” I mean only that you have absorbed it into your own wires and circuitry. I am well aware that there are not always anymore physical holds involved in the absorption of music. Before I tell you more about The Traveler, I want to tell you a little bit about myself. I apologize for this. But the album you are holding, The Traveler, suggests that you cannot understand the journey that you are on unless you understand who you are, and that understanding who you are is the most damnably difficult journey of all. Untangling identity is painful but necessary. I believe The Traveler may be of use in this regard. Of use to me, I mean: Is that a selfish use of this album? If so I apologize again.

Apologies can be empty without any attempt to correct for the behavior that led to the apology. As a result I will not tell you a little bit about myself before I tell you more about The Traveler. This singer, Rhett Miller, has made many albums before, both on his own and with his band, Old 97s. This new album shares something fundamental with the old albums, which is the rare ability to see what people are feeling and then cast those feelings in rhymes. This is what is known as “song-making.” The human part of me loves songs. The machine part of me marvels at them without understanding at all why there is a tugging sensation in the cavity that should contain my heart.

The first song here, “Wanderlust,” is a perfect example of all that I am describing. It tells the story of a man on a train who is thinking about a woman who is not on that train. There is another song called “Lucky Star” that I believe is about finding redemption in the person of a lover. It contains a joke that unnerves me: “Heaven knows there probably is no heaven.” There is another song called “Wicked Things” about New Orleans that illustrates the slipperiness of forgiveness. Every song has little moments that catch me at strange angles and I feel an unfamiliar sensation, pitched midway between satisfying recognition and deep sadness.
My experience with these songs, I want to stipulate, may not be shared by others, in part because I am demonstrably different than them. I am both human and a machine. I come from a long line of people who are both humans and machines. Are they people then? I leave that to the philosophers. My father was a difference engine designed and deployed in Lund by Pehr Georg Scheutz. He was quite large: my father, I mean, not Scheutz. Scheutz was tiny. In Jönköping, where he was born, old ladies would marvel at his miniature features. “Liten Pehr,” they would say, reaching down into the carriage and frightening the boy. Even as an adult, he was at most five foot three, with feet that tapered down to toylike points. Much of this is hearsay but some of it cannot be disputed, even by the suspicious, and at any rate, we are not talking about Scheutz, not really. We are talking about my father. He was the size of a fortepiano.

There is a song on this record called “Dreams Vs. Waking Life.” It is not the first song on the record but it was, by accident, the first song I heard. It has bowed notes and a dark tone and does what any piece of literature, song or story, should do: it investigates the role of memory, loss, and desire in our lives. When I hear that song, I feel the stirrings of uncommon and uncontrollable emotions. They grind against the part of me that is a machine. The result is a shuddering. I try to calm myself by looking at the other song titles— “Fair Enough,” “Escape Velocity,” “Reasons to Live” — but they only make me feel more rather than less. Where do you go when you want to feel less? One song title, “Good Night,” seems like it might not overwhelm me. But the first line, “There’s a pinprick of light on a black sheet of night,” starts me shuddering again.

When you listen to an album, you are supposed to notice sonic details. That’s what I have been told. And there are many sonic details on this album, like the choir that opens “My Little Disaster” or the doubled vocals in “Fair Enough.” There are joyful melodies like “Most in the Summertime.” I can tell that they are joyful, even though I am half-machine. It’s clear. But the sonic details would not mean much without the rest of what this album does, which is to try to make sense of what cannot be made sense of, which is humanity. Even the part of me that is a machine knows that.
When you’re inside an album like this, when you’re feeling too much, what do you do? I know what I did. I skipped to the end of the album, quickly. This is a survival strategy. The album ends with a song called “Reasons to Live” that makes use of the old saw that a broken clock is right twice a day. The part of me that is a machine wants to correct that phrasing. It is a stopped clock that is right twice a day. A broken clock may never be right. Then it occurs to me that maybe the song knows this. The song is about finding hope even when you are telling yourself lies. The part of me that is a human wants to break down and cry once again.

I want to tell one more story about my father. He was briefly in the military of a nation I will not identify and when his service ended his first trip was to a sporting house, where he spent time in the company of a young woman. Money changed hands. To hear him tell it, the situation was emergent. “I had been locked up so long that I hardly recognized my own wants and needs,” he later wrote in a letter to me. “Briefly, I recognized myself in her.” They did not stay together, my father and that young woman. He was a young man then. As I have grown though the world, I have had experiences that bear some similarity to my father’s experiences with that woman. We all have, have we not? They are called “relationships” or “romances,” but what are they really? Are they love? Are they self-love? Or are they something else entirely, a form of travel that allow us to escape from ourselves? This album asks all those questions, repeatedly. I want to quote one more line, from a song called “Jules.” It’s a line about love and self-love and travel that allows us to escape from ourselves: “Who’s to say the crooked way that led me to your door / Means any less than any mess I ever made before?” Sun comes up. Sun goes down. Call it a day.
“We never set our sights on making a record or being a band,” Salim Nourallah says of NHD, his new collaboration with fellow songwriters Billy Harvey and Alex Dezen. “There was just something about the three of us coming together that created this weird explosion of energy. We could tell right away from the very first song that there was some kind of special chemistry happening.”

That chemistry is the joyous heart of ‘And The Devil Went Up To Portland,’ the trio’s riotous debut record. Born out of a series of freewheeling and collaborative live tours, the album showcases a band built on equal parts humor and heart, one blessed with an embarrassment of artistic riches. Spare and direct in its production, the record captures the infectious lyrical wit and remarkably engaging presence of NHD’s three kindred frontmen, who, according to Austin NPR station KUTX, have already developed the kind of “depth and polish you would expect to find in long-running bands.” Each member of the group is a successful solo artist and bandleader in his own right, but the magic of NHD lies in its playful, Rat Pack-esque interplay. With nothing to prove, they made an album for the sheer fun of it, and the result is a whole that’s far greater than the sum of its already-remarkable parts.

Nourallah got his start nearly three decades ago in Texas, where he built up a reputation as something of a Lone Star Nick Lowe for his steady output of stellar solo and band material (Rolling Stone called him “a singer-songwriter who can stop time”) as well as his acclaimed work as a producer (he’s taken the wheel for four Old 97’s albums, as well as Rhett Miller’s self-titled album and The Damnwells’ eponymous reunion LP among others). Harvey, meanwhile, is more of a post-modern pop shapeshifter, a singer and songwriter and filmmaker and animator and producer and actor and poet who’s too eclectic to pin down for long. He’s played guitar for Patty Griffin and The Courtyard Hounds, produced records for Bob Schneider and Slaid Cleaves, and had his own songs hailed by the Austin Chronicle for their “pop patina and singer-songwriter essence.” Dezen, the youngest of the three, first came to international attention as the frontman of “charming” (NPR) Brooklyn indie rockers The Damnwells, who released five celebrated studio albums and shared stages with everyone from Cheap Trick to Bob Dylan. As a songwriter and guitarist on his own, Dezen has contributed to music released by a slew of stars, including Justin Bieber, The Dixie Chicks, Dave Grohl, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Jason Derulo, Christina Perri, and Company of Thieves’ Genevieve Schatz.

Though their various paths had crissed and crossed during their long and winding careers, the three had never shared a bill until Nourallah “accidentally” set up a trio tour in Texas a few years back.

“I remember talking to Billy about doing some dates together, and then I thought that I’d better run them by Alex, too, expecting that one or the other would flake out on me,” laughs Nourallah. “It turned out they were both all in, and suddenly there were three of us for these shows. Billy and Alex had never met, but within 24 hours on the road, they were in the grips of a full-on mega bromance.”

“When you really connect with somebody, it can feel like you’ve known them for a long time,” reflects Harvey. “That’s what I experienced with Alex. I love his songs and we make each other laugh, and the same goes for Salim. That first tour was controlled chaos between fast friends.”

Their musical road trip was such a blast, in fact, that they did it again, and again after that. All three would sit onstage together for the duration of the shows, playing on each other’s songs and riffing on each other’s jokes. When Dixie Chicks fiddler Martie McGuire invited the trio to cut an album out of her HEK studio in Austin, it was too good of an offer to pass up.

“We only had a week to record because of each of our collective crazy schedules,” says Nourallah, “and several of the songs weren’t even written until we got into the studio. But I think while we were writing and recording there, that’s when it truly hit us that we had something real on our hands. We discovered this collective power as a group that none of us had had on our own.”

The album opens with a lighthearted, guitar-and-mandolin take on 70’s hit “The Boys Are Back In Town,” which has become something of an NHD theme song. With each member taking a verse and sharing call-and-response duties on the choruses, it sets the stage perfectly for what’s to come: a truly collaborative, blissful journey through the collective consciousness of three adventurous, inventive artists, each in possession of an endless supply of creativity both in front of and behind the microphone.

“We were all producing and throwing things at the wall,” says Dezen of the whirlwind recording sessions. “We were plugging stuff directly in, turning stuff up too loud, putting microphones in bathrooms.”

Nourallah’s songwriting contributions featured tracks that pre-dated NHD but had never found a home, like the beautifully off-kilter “I Sent A Postcard” and banjo-driven “You’re The Light,” and the same went for many of Harvey’s tracks, including the meditative “Complicatedness” and funky “Lose Or Take It All,” which were both drawn from a deep back catalog that Nourallah had always hoped would see the light of day.

“The songs I brought in didn’t change too drastically at their core,” says Harvey, “but they were definitely made better by the group. We traded instruments a lot and there’s something like voodoo in that.

Dezen’s entries in the NHD catalog were the most spontaneous of the bunch, with tracks like the cinematic “Hello From An Emergency Room In Hollywood” and clever “Somebody Loves Me” written primarily in a burst of inspiration in and around the studio, albeit with a healthy dose of collaboration with both of his bandmates.

“It’s fun to write and record that quickly because it doesn’t give you time to second guess,” Dezen explains. “Salim contributed a lot on the lyrical side, taking an idea or title of mine and whipping it into a story, and then Billy would tear the songs open and put a heart inside.”

In the end, heart is what it’s all about for a band like NHD. Without the weight of expectation or pressure, they were free to follow their collective muse and create an album that channeled all the joy and madness they’d experienced on the road. ‘And The Devil Went Up To Portland’ is a pure product of friendship and mutual artistic respect, but more than that, it’s a much-needed reminder of just how much fun making music can—and should—be.
Venue Information:
The Armory
314 E. Mountain Ave
Fort Collins, CO, 80524