In the last months of Waylon Jennings' life, the legendary outlaw recorded a cover of the Old 97's 'The Other Shoe', a country-tinged tale of a spurned lover's revenge. The 97's stood in as his backing band, and when Jennings struggled with the phrase 'an elixir' in the song's second verse, frontman Rhett Miller was called upon to help. "Think of two beautiful women naked together," a nervous Miller told Jennings. "And remember 'Annie Licks Her'".
Miller told that story Monday night at Jammin' Java in very suburban Vienna, VA on the first date of a tour in support of 'The Dreamer', his third solo record. He was moments from delivering the punch line when he blushed, realizing that he'd misjudged the crowd just slightly. "Oh, God. I just realized there are kids in the audience," he laughed, before finishing the story and delivering an acoustic version of the song. It was the only misstep of a rollicking evening.
I went to the show with my wife not really knowing what to expect. Jammin' Java's a neat little venue, but the emphasis there is on little, and suburban DC on a Monday night ain't exactly Jazz Fest. I should've known that my favorite musician wouldn't disappoint. Miller and his band, The Serial Lady Killers, were using the small club as essentially a dress rehearsal for their national tour. "We've got a lotta songs tonight, so we're just gonna get right to it," Miller said by way of introduction.
25 tunes and over two hours later, Miller and the band ripped through a lively version of 'Our Love' to close the show with as much energy as they opened it, and the Moms and Dads in the audience did their damnedest to forget they didn't have to go to work the next morning. Maybe it was the proximity to the stage. Or perhaps the novelty of seeing one of my favorites in such a local joint. Could've been the Dale's Pale Ales that went down like water, too, I guess. Whatever the reasons, this show went immediately into my top 3 of all time.
The band mixed several songs from Miller's new record with a healthy dose of his earlier solo work and a heaping helping of Old 97's cuts, including standouts like 'King of All of the World', 'Murder (or a Heart Attack', 'Nineteen', 'Four Leaf Clover', and 'Barrier Reef'. At the midpoint of the set, the band took a break while Miller played a handful of acoustic tunes by himself, including the aforementioned 'The Other Shoe'. His down-tempo acoustic version of the band's riff-heavy 'Timebomb' reimagined the song in a way I hadn't ever considered.
As Miller stopped to introduce the band at one point, he exclaimed, "I'm a really lucky man. I've got two great bands." The Serial Lady Killers certainly lived up to the billing, with guitarist Tommy Borscheid, bassist Greg Besher, and drummer Angela Webster, sounding anything like a band running through several songs for the first time.
In addition to the Old97's discography, Miller's early solo work was well represented, with 'I Need to Know Where I Stand', 'The El', 'Singular Girl', an electrified version of 'Question' - interesting counterpoint to the acoustic 'Timebomb', 'My Valentine', and 'Four Eyed Girl' standing out.
I don't recall much about the new tunes, except to say that they sounded tight. 'Picture This' was a noteworthy exception. It might be the most optimistic - even happy - love song Miller's ever written. That's not saying much, given his catalogue of wrenching heartbreak and self-loathing, but it's a beautiful little tune, made moreso by the presence of Heather Robb of opening act The Spring Standards, who performed the song with Miller.
Tuesday morning coming down didn't feel all that great, but the ringing in my ears and cobwebs in my head were more than worth it. Live music, man. It's good for what ails you.