A Cathartic Return to Live Music With Rhett Miller
NEW YORK, NY – The Old 97’s released a new record last August, but with venues shuttered, frontman Rhett Miller hadn’t had a chance to play these songs in front of a live audience—with the exception of his dog, Ziggy, who reportedly naps through them.
That’s not to say he hasn’t played the songs at all—far from it. When tours were canceled last spring, Miller started playing four livestreams a week on the StageIt platform and has logged more than 200 to date. In an otherwise featureless stretch of “blursdays” (a New Yorker cartoon captures how covid-19 has warped our perception of time), these themed shows—Time Travel Tuesdays revisited entire albums, and Friday Friends setlists were curated by celeb pals like Jenna Fischer—became a new way of marking time.
Like many, I’ve been tuning into these livestreams regularly. In late March last year, with New York under a “shelter at home” order and the streets jarringly empty and quiet except for the sound of ambulance sirens, I jotted this down:
Monday, 23 March 2020
My phone screen lights up. “Are you watching Rhett?”
I haven’t spoken with M.H. or M.M. [two high school friends] in years. Geographic proximity is a factor in friendship, and we now live in different places. But in the last week or so, we’ve started texting during Rhett’s livestreams.
Covid-19 is creating this weird space-time compression effect. When we’re all isolated at home, the virtual interactions are the entire universe of interactions. There’s no difference in the physical closeness of a pal in Grapevine and one in Auckland. And so the three of us pick right back up as if the intervening decades and distance weren’t there. The dynamics of the teasing, the rhythm of people’s speech patterns—it all comes back to me.
During “Big Brown Eyes,” Rhett pauses and leans closer to the camera. It’s the moment in the song where he goes, “I’ve got issues…” and the audience shouts-sings back, “yeah!” Then: “Like I miss you” … “yeah!” Both times, Rhett pauses. Both times, I shout “yeah!” at the screen. I imagine [my friends] doing the same. I imagine thousands of people here and around the world, sitting in living rooms and bedrooms and at kitchen tables, singing back. It makes me smile. Those muscles in my face feel stiff from under-use.
It’s an uncanny sort of symmetry that this show marked the tail end (fingers crossed) of my pandemic experience, because these songs were the last ones I heard live and in person before the world closed down. A year and a month ago, I’d just returned from Nashville, where I spent a day documenting the Old 97’s at Sputnik Sound. Shortly afterwards, schools, offices, restaurants, and music venues were closed in an effort to halt the spread of covid-19.
Thirteen months is ample time to ponder what it would feel like to see a live show again. I was still unprepared, however, for the heady mix of emotions. I’ve tried to disentangle them because it seems that a first post-pandemic live show warrants documentation. But the full meaning slips through the cracks between my words.
I admit to some pandemic-related anxiety in the days leading up to the show. Many of us have had one or both vaccine shots, but this was still an indoor gathering with strangers. Health aside, I wasn’t sure I knew how to be around other humans again. (These Frog and Toad memes sum it up well.) Arriving at City Winery tamed my nerves, though. The venue’s protocols are among the more elaborate in the city. We filled out health questionnaires and had our temperature checked at the door. Inside, the 350-person venue was limited to about 100 guests at loosely spaced tables (farther than the requisite six feet). Servers wore masks, as did guests, except when eating or drinking.
My friend and fellow Old 97’s fan, Kristie Gripp, waved at me from a table at the front. She and her mom (both vaccinated) drove from Ohio for this show and had generously offered me a seat at their table. We chatted excitedly, pausing to remark on the pre-show venue music—“Rhett must have picked the playlist,” we speculate, after a couple of David Bowie and Talking Heads songs. Even with masks on, we could see the joyful anticipation in each other’s eyes and body language. “Like kids on Christmas morning,” I thought to myself, looking around.
The venue was originally slated to open April 2020. Needless to say, those plans were put on hold. Whenever I walked past, I’d peer through the windows, and it was great to finally step inside. The new bi-level space looks terrific and sounds even better. The former venue on Varick Street had columns dotted throughout and a small second level tucked into the far corner, resulting in a handful of obstructed-view seats. The sightlines in the new, larger City Winery are clear—there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Behind the stage, there’s a gridwork of beams taken from the old venue. That’s not the only part of Varick Street that was brought over—the piano that resided in the green room also has a new home at Pier 57.
I hadn’t asked to shoot the show—it seemed disrespectful of people’s safety for me to move around. But sitting still at a concert was an unfamiliar feeling, and it contributed to a sense of disorientation. And it was more than just the absence of a photo pass. I was reckoning with how much had changed in a year while many of us were forced to stand still. How did we arrive at this point in the timeline, and how do we start to catalog all that’s been lost along the way? Am I allowed to enjoy this evening when so many are struggling? And what even is this moment—an inflection point, a new chapter, a denouement?
Or maybe an énouement—an invented word from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Even if I could travel back in time to admonish myself not to take a single minute of any show for granted, pre-pandemic me wouldn’t have understood it on so visceral a level. There’s a bittersweetness in that recognition—in living life forward and analyzing it in the rearview mirror, the not-quite-inverse of Gatsby’s rowboat, laboring against the currents of time. The joy I felt was tinged with melancholy. We’d finally arrived in this moment and could reckon safely with that unspoken question—“what if I never get to do this again?” It’s the sort of question we dared not ask aloud, for fear of casting a dark spell, until we arrived on the other side.
Even when we’re fully past the pandemic, a trace of that fear—“what if this is the last time?”—will remain, at least for me. This past year has been a lot to process, a study in extremes and contrasts. Empty grocery store shelves and signs that read: “Limit 2 per household.” Notices on building bulletin boards and posted around the block: “Hi to our older neighbors: If you need help getting groceries, call me at — .” Overflowing hospitals, and worse, the freezer trucks. The U.S.S. Comfort docked at Pier 90. The clapping and banging of pots and pans every day at 7pm to thank our essential workers. Balloons tied to construction scaffolding: “Happy Birthday, Breonna. Rest in power.” Volunteers handing out water and hand sanitizer to other marchers as we walked past unmasked police officers with fistfuls of zip ties hooked prominently on their belts. Waking up a few weeks ago to texts about “the news” and knowing something bad had happened to people who look like me. Reconciling my lived experience as a first-generation immigrant—those women could have been my mom, my auntie, and the sheriff said what?—with my social media feed that day: Happy St. Patrick’s Day. The gentle eyes of a young boy lighting a candle at a peace vigil. The friends who checked in on me, and everyone who attended those rallies to say, with their presence: “You aren’t alone.”
Our time here comes with no guarantees. What’s ultimately in our control are acts of self care and mutual care. That and our acts of creation. What our favorite musicians and bands give us is not just brilliant albums and concerts, but also each other. The difficulty of the past year makes me all the more grateful for the moments of transcendence and togetherness that we’re able to find, the silver linings we coax out of the darkest times. And that was the emotion I landed on, that Saturday night at City Winery: gratitude and happiness made more poignant by the knowledge that we’re all just passing through.
Maybe I’m projecting, thinking that I was reading some of this in Miller’s expression as he strode across the stage (a slim-fitted black tee in place of his usual button-down) and picked up the 12-string. The sunset over the Hudson River was nothing compared to the warmth of the sound that filled the room—
What remains of the day remains to be seen
By the TV that we never turn on
Each other’s enough I never had it so rough
Ever since I been gone.
It was “Jagged” from 1999’s Fight Songs (my first Old 97’s album, and one of the few CDs I’ve held onto over the years). I can’t begin to imagine how much time Miller must have spent perfecting the songs and reworking the setlists for the evening. I also can’t imagine a more apt pair of openers—“Lonely Holiday,” the second track on Fight Songs, was the first song of the late set.
If we could take a cross-section of a single song as we experience it through time, it’d be akin to reading tree rings—a dendroclimatology of our lived experience. The first line in “Jagged” was inspired by Miller’s producer housemate when he lived in LA—a reference to a prop in Waiting for Guffman. It’s a bit of song trivia he shared last summer during a StageIt show. Rewind the clock two decades and change—teenage me, awkward and desperately lost, focused on the refrain, which I took at face value—I would give anything not to feel so jagged. On Saturday, the song felt like a departure and return—not in tandem, but both at once. I’d forgotten how it felt to have music reverberating in my chest, to see sweat glistening as the person on stage gave it everything he’s got. The collective happiness in the room, an intense delight edged with relief, was palpable.
“It was a beautifully cathartic experience to be a part of the return of live music,” Kristie told me afterward, noting the joy on Miller’s face as he took the stage. “It’s been hard for the fans to be away from shows they love, but it surely can’t compare to what the musicians are feeling who have had their livelihoods put on hold[.]”
Thirteen months off the road, singing to a video camera, and now this—“should I be nervous?” Miller queried in an Instagram caption about the two-set evening. A few songs into the early set, he joked that despite trying to pace himself, “as it turns out, I have only one speed.”
You can see that speed in the blur of his windmill-strumming arm.
I’m rusty on mental notetaking during shows, but I remember his joke before playing “Diamonds on Neptune”—one of my favorites on the latest album, Twelfth. “It really is a reminder of the arbitrary assignment of value, right?” Miller said. “It rains diamonds on Neptune, and the people there say, ‘oh great, 30% chance of diamonds today—I’m so sick of diamonds.’” He paused a beat, then clarified: “I don’t actually think there are people on Neptune.”
I looked across the table at that moment and noticed that Kristie and her mom were laughing hard, as I was. It felt good to be with friends again, in real life, unmediated by Zoom.
Miller received a standing ovation after each set, and though our numbers were fewer by regulation, the clapping and hollering was capacity-crowd strong.
Don’t give up yet, honey, don’t get down. “Wheels,” from Miller’s solo album, The Messenger, is a song that his mom often requests. Like so much of what he writes, these lines distill the human experience in a way that makes us feel less alone. It was so fitting for the setlist that night, marking the return of live music to this resilient city. We’re going to be ok, though that’s not to say that everything is ok. There’s so much lost that can’t be recovered and deep social ills with which we’ve barely started to reckon. But we’re here, and it’s spring again. I see a pair of well-worn brown boots on stage, and behind them, a guitar case stamped “OLD 97’s”—the “L,” an upside-down “7.” There’s time ahead together. And that makes my heart sing.
Tune into Rhett Miller’s livestreams on StageIt.
City Winery’s upcoming shows are listed here.
Pick up a “Dangerous Snakes Who Hate Bullsh*t” T-shirt from comedian Dave Hill’s site here.
Thanks to Kristie Gripp and Ehud Lazin for letting me share a few of their photos.
I can’t wait to see you front row at a show again. We’re not there yet, though, so please stay safe, stay masked, and get your vaccine.