It would be easy to dismiss the Rhett Miller who played Thursday night at the High Noon Saloon as a sell-out. His two solo records, The Instigator and The Believer, have completed the transformation from the ragged country punk of the Old 97's' earliest (and still best) work to the high-gloss, commercially viable pop their last records hinted at. His looks have undergone a similar transformation, from scruffy, thick-glasses-wearing nerd to similarly glossy, magazine model pretty boy. His band even recorded a jingle for Chili's. Yep, all the signs are there.
But then there's the live show, nearly an hour and a half so completely packed with nerve-rattling energy and genuine aw"shucks charm that anyone still crying "sell-out" at the end must have watched it from outside. The evening began with the likeable "Won't Be Home" (from Drag It Up by the Old 97's) and ended with the truly awful "Oh Erica," a song written to woo his now wife and sung to the tune of "America," as the second encore. In between were a few misses, but even more hits.
While Old 97's classics like "Barrier Reef"(which turned into a massive sing"along) and the positively explosive "Doreen" were certainly among the highlights, a case could be made for the delightful duet "Fireflies" (he sang both parts tonight). Other new songs didn't fare as well. "Ain't That Strange," for example, was only partially redeemed by its cha-cha-cha ending, and honestly, I don't need to hear "Come Around" ever again.
Of course, the truth is I will forgive him anything as long as he does that from the elbow down guitar windmill thing during "Victoria Lee" (it makes girls swoon, seriously) or asks the rhetorical "Do you wanna mess around?' at the beginning of "Buick City Complex." He even countered charges that the Chili's commercial was all about the money by actually playing it, only pausing to wonder "what have I gotten myself into?"
Opener Carrie Rodriguez, accompanied by Hans Holzen on guitar, played likeable Lucinda Williams-esque tunes on her fiddle and Mandobird (an electric mandolin). She was completely adorable, with a healthy dose of that same Texas charm. But the buzz of chatter toward the end of her set indicated the crowd was ready to rock. Luckily, that's exactly what Miller did.