Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rhett Miller interview

A version of my story originally appeared in the North County Times. Miller plays the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Wednesday, Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana on Thursday and the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Friday. Photo courtesy of

Anyone who’s witnessed a Rhett Miller performance (either solo or as longtime front man for alt-country darling Old 97’s), can attest to his charisma and boundless energy onstage. It’s not unusual for Miller to battle laryngitis – especially when he gets down to the San Diego area.

“For some reason, the Belly Up is always one of the last shows on the tour for me. A couple times, I’ve showed up there with no voice. It’s one of the only places where people have not only asked for their money back, but said, ‘his voice is not supposed to sound like that.’ Honestly, they were right,” admitted the singer/guitarist via phone from a noisy hometown eatery in the Hudson River Valley area of New York.

The recurring problem shouldn’t crop up next week though. “I’m excited the Solana Beach date is first on this run.” Miller, 39, is supporting last summer’s acclaimed third solo album. Material from both facets of his career will be represented in the live set. “The fun of it is we’re able to take Old 97’s songs, really switch ‘em up and try different things.”

Partially inspired by two deaths that impacted him (grandmother Narene, literary idol David Foster Wallace), half of the self-titled effort has a more somber adult rock scope than 2006’s power pop-leaning “The Believer.” Miller’s original plan was to make an all acoustic “campfire record,” evidenced by such stark, intimate tunes as “Bonfire,” “Lashes” and “Sometimes.”

A stylistic shift occurred after John Dufilho (Apples in Stereo) provided rhythmic input. “Once we built up from the drums, some songs became huge, loud epic things. I was surprised, but if you start making rules and aren’t allowed to break them, it winds up being bad for everybody.”

Futuristic barnburner “Happy Birthday, Don’t Die” - a rave up about an elderly woman from a distant planet - and the Buddy Holly-styled “If It’s Not Love” are standouts.

“I’m glad there are moments of real space and quiet to balance out the frenetic insanity… a whole record of [subdued], strumming stuff could be boring and forgettable. Maybe it’s better to have the whole spectrum represented.”

The countrified “Another Girlfriend” dates back more than a decade (Miller unsuccessfully lobbied for placement on several Old 97’s discs). Like “Birthday,” it is an example of the Austin native’s shrewd humor shining through.

“That’s tricky. If you try too hard to be funny in a song, usually it falls flat. ‘Another Girlfriend’ walks a fine line and I had to pare it down.” His knack for lyrical alliteration also turns up in strategic places (“I Need to Know Where I Stand,” “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore”).

“It’s nice to have elements of that in music, but I also have to be conscious that music is not literature and you can’t too brainy because really, it’s a visceral thing.”

“Over the last few years, I’ve been reading more than ever,” Miller continued. “I’ve had this long term life plan to segue into writing [in depth] at some point. I’m about 5 ½ chapters into a mystery novel - nothing fancy. I don’t know if it will even come out. That’s a dream of mine and a big passion.”

Literary pursuits have been important for this musician since a young age. Following private school graduation in 1989, he briefly attended the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College on scholarship, then left to record an independent solo album with future Old 97’s guitarist Murry Hammond. The pair formed the group in 1993. “ Murray brought a strong country element and I had fun writing barroom songs early on; I still do a little bit.”

Signed to Elektra Records, “our mantra was, ‘we want a career. We would gladly trade a hit single for a string of albums that were well received and beloved by fans.’ At the time, I remember thinking, ‘is this just lip service?’ Even then, the climate of major labels was starting to get scary and I figured we needed to make some big waves or else we wouldn’t be able to keep it going. The good thing was we did what we wanted – make a bunch of records and maintain a really strong fan base."

Seven studio albums later, Old 97’s are still going strong. Miller said a bunch of projects are planned this year, including a new band effort and solo album, plus two covers collections from each (his “Live at Largo” was recorded at the popular LA nightclub in 2008).

“You don’t stop. Like a shark, you just gotta keep swimming.”

Grammy Award picks 2010

I have a mediocre track record at predicting who will win Grammys, so this year I'm going to single out who should win in selected categories. Other nominees in each category follow.

Use Somebody/Kings of Leon - Yes, as one friend mentioned, it oversaturated the airwaves, but big hit singles usually do and this one was quite memorable (Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Black Eyed Peas)

Big Whiskey & the Groogrux King/Dave Matthews Band - The best of the lot in a weak category (Beyonce, Gaga, Swift, BEP)

Use Somebody/Kings of Leon - Same reason as above (Beyonce, Gaga, Swift, Maxwell)

MGMT deserves it, hands down, over Zac Brown Band, Ting Tings, Keri Hilson, Silversun Pickups

Yes/Pet Shop Boys - One of the UK duo's finest ever (Gaga, LMFAO, David Guetta, Crystal Method)

21 Guns/Green Day - This is a strong category, where Coldplay, Kings of Leon or U2 would be equally deserving. The Eric Clapton/Steve Winwood track is from their live album and shouldn't be here.

The Fixer/Pearl Jam - Another strong list, rounded out by U2, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day and Kings of Leon

21st Century Breakdown/Green Day (AC/DC, Clapton/Winwood, U2, Matthews)

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today/David Byrne & Brian Eno - These two legends made one of 2008's best. A tough category, with Depeche Mode, Phoenix, Death Cab For Cutie and Yeah Yeah Yeahs also contending

Middle Cyclone/Neko Case (Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

NAMM 2010-Day 3 live wrap up

A version of this blog post originally appeared in the OC Register. I took the photo while standing relatively close to the stage, before some goon with a large professional lens nearly hit me in the head.

While walking through the trade show at NAMM, it’s common to stumble upon surprise artist appearances. Such was the case on Day 3, when I saw a large crowd assembled in front of the small TOCA percussion booth, peeked around and glimpsed the Escovedo family (including Sheila E. and father Pete) going to town on a feisty, fun rhythm jam on bongos and drums.

Then an enticing, folksy cover of The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” suddenly caught my ear. Huddled on a small stage at the Sennheiser microphones booth was Sara Haze and her band. Orange County resident Sara Haze has played the Grand Ole Opry, had songs placed on TV’s “The Hills,” worked with top Nashville songwriters and just put out an independent album (My Personal Sky).

The 20-year-old blonde singer did several appealing selections in a country/pop vein. It didn’t take long before an assembled throng started clapping along. An atmospheric “Beautiful Day,” where Haze incorporated a bit of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” was a clear standout. Definitely one to watch.

Across the expansive Anaheim Convention Center , surf guitar legend Dick Dale and teenage son Jimmy played instrumental electric guitar tunes. Before launching into “Miserlou,” the elder Dale explained how Quentin Tarantino came to use the popular 1962 track in “Pulp Fiction.”

Nearby, familiar prog rock keyboard textures emanated from the Infinite Response space, where Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa) held court. The synth/violin master did a fascinating demo of the new dual VAX77 keyboard system with mini-Moog that he helped develop and did bits of songs as examples. He ended up blowing out the small sound system’s woofer speaker.

Some junior high school student musicians displayed their talent on the ACC’s Main Lobby stage with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” Once they exited, Motor City Madman Ted Nugent suddenly walked out and dashed off “The Star Spangled Banner,” Hendrix style, on electric guitar. He added some of trademark warped humorous quips along the way.

Orianthi – the 24-year-old Aussie hard rock guitar gal originally tapped to tour with Michael Jackson on the ill-fated “This is It” world tour - closed the Main Lobby stage’s Saturday lineup. She turned in a mighty impressive 50-minute set culled from recently released Geffen debut disc Believe. The large audience flanked all the entrances and watched from stairwells leading to other floors.

Despite an iffy sound mix, Orianthi and her tight four member group packed quite a wallop, especially amid tunes bolstered by three electric guitars. On the powerful “Suffocated,” Orianthi’s hammering style recalled Eddie Van Halen (Lita Ford would be the closest female comparison). Sassy, wailing rocker “According to You” – currently climbing the top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 – bore shades of Alanis Morissette. Power ballad “God Only Knows” was a definite highlight, as was the volcanic instrumental “Song for Steve,” written in honor of fellow axe slinger and 2007 tour mate Steve Vai (he also guests on the new album).

Monday, January 18, 2010

NAMM 2010-Day 2 live wrap up

Damn Yankees photo courtesy of Robert Kinsler

NAMM was back at the Anaheim Convention Center late last week, drawing thousands of music industry professionals from around the world to see and hear the latest instruments and accessories, watch live performances and meet/get autographs from various artists.

The International Music Products Association is the trade association which sponsored the four day event (plus invite only preview day), commonly referred to by its original moniker, National Association of Music Merchandisers (NAMM). There were more than 85,000 registrants and nearly 1,400 exhibitors.

On Friday, I managed to catch highly touted new Scandinavian rock band BigBang on the outdoor stage. Their second Stateside album "Edendale," influenced by late '60s acts such as Cream, comes out next week. Of the few tunes witnessed at NAMM, "Wild Bird" and the sweet harmonies of "Call Me" definitely stood out.

Taylor Guitars always has top-notch talent in one of several medium sized (oxygen-deprived) conference rooms upstairs. This year's crop included Night Ranger, whose hard rock anthems like "You Can Still Rock in America" and the power ballad "Sister Christian" came off well in an acoustic setting. Leader Jack Blades also reunited with his Damn Yankees bandmates (Tommy Shaw, Ted Nugent, Michael Cartellone, pictured above) for the first time in more than a decade. The fun, mini-stripped down set featured "Coming of Age," "High Enough" and The Nuge's solo hit "Cat Scratch Fever."

A colleague and I wanted to stay for Jason Mraz, but it was too hot in the packed room. So we hightailed it over to Disney's California Adventure. That's where Yamaha put on its semi-annual, star-studded private dealers show at the Hyperion Theater.

This year's Yamaha concert was emceed by Damon Wayans (who did a mediocre job) and had a roster featuring punk/pop newcomers Pull Start Rockets, Jon McLaughlin, John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting, Mraz, Vince Gill, Natalie Cole and headliner Michael McDonald. They did between 2-5 songs each.

Mraz was great as usual, especially on an extended freestyle version of "The Remedy (I Won't Worry)" aided by the 30-piece orchestra and 10-piece house band. He left me wanting more than three songs. Now I really regret missing his show at the Hollywood Bowl a few months ago. McLaughlin admitted his nervousness, but still proved enthralling on keyboard-led selections like "So Close" and "Beautiful Disaster."

Ondrasik - quite animated on the piano - excelled on "Superman" and while I'm not a fan of Gill, you couldn't help but be moved by his "When You Come Around."

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happy Birthday music icons

Put on some Elvis Presley and David Bowie music today in honor of their birthdays

Check out the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) cable network, airing its annual Elvis movie marathon on what would've been the King's 75th.

As for the Thin White Duke, he celebrates No. 63. Here's hoping he finally puts out a new studio album or goes on tour this year (we're going on seven years since "Reality" came out).

Best concerts 2009

Here are the 10 most memorable concerts I attended
(of 57 total) last year:

U2, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. (October)
Coldplay, Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif. (July)
Paul McCartney, Coachella Festival, Indio, Calif. (April)
Kings of Leon, The Forum, Inglewood, Calif. (August)
Manic Street Preachers, Avalon Hollywood (September)
Bruce Springsteen & the E St. Band, LA Sports Arena (April)
Mika, Hollywood Palladium (October)
Paul Weller, Coachella
James Morrison, Coachella
Fran Healy & Andy Dunlop of Travis - acoustic, Largo at the Coronet, LA (October)