Rhett Miller delivers at the Iron Horse Music Hall

By Peadar Angelone

(Rhett Miller official Facebook page)
(Rhett Miller official Facebook page)

There’s something to be said for the vibe that an old person’s bar gives off. It’s brash, it’s homely and most importantly, it doesn’t give a damn what you think. Throw in a performance and a decent dose of passion and an older pub can feel like its own universe, with whoever’s on stage drawing everyone else into orbit. Rhett Miller used every ounce of energy he could to embrace this effect at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton last Thursday.

Miller, a 45-year-old rock star too old to draw in the young crowds and too young to call it quits, gives off the sense that he found the fountain of youth and kept his conscience in the 1990s. He rocks his hair like he’s in Nirvana, keeps the energy of a chili pepper and caps off his brazen forever-young songs with bit jokes about how his lagging knack for maneuvering the iPhone makes him “old.” Rhett is only in his 40’s with a look that could pass for late 20’s, so his allusions to age are more playfully smug than painfully true.

Miller’s opening act, an older rock/folk/70s psychedelic-performer Salim Nourallah played a song about two lizards in a Mexican señorita’s hair that got the room feeling weird in all sorts of ways. Whatever weirdness stemmed from the trippy lizard song was brushed over and forgotten when he sang a song of nostalgia, which was undeniably touching; asking, at one point, what a “younger me” would now “think of me.”

A good space of time separated the opening act from Miller’s performance. But once he was on stage, he delivered. Striding onto the stage through the crowd, hair soaked from sweat, or whatever, draped over a good bit of his face. Miller came to play.

With the crowd and an acoustic guitar in his hands, Miller got it going with string strumming jams before kicking it with some more subtle and sentimental tunes. Most of his performance centered on those simple acoustics and an even simpler message: the free life is the good life.

Miller, who’s from Texas, has been rocking and rolling all over the United States for virtually his entire adult life. He’s been committed to highway lifestyle for so long that his presence comes off as rare and fleeting. It feels like the Iron Horse is a venue, like many others, which will enjoy the Texan’s company for an evening and then wave goodbye for who knows how long. His song “Rock and Roll’s been very good to me” captures this essence perfectly. In it he insists that “the open road’s the only place I wanna be.” No one could deny that Miller made a point to live up to that line.

Miller is also the lead singer and songwriter for the Old 97’s. The band, which has released 10 albums as of 2014 are recognized as a pioneer in the all country movement and disappointed a lot of the music media with its lack of meteoric success. The high hopes that kick-started their careers ultimately fell short of producing a bona fide superstar act. Nonetheless, with all members enjoying long and successful careers in music, their history couldn’t be called anything short of terrific.

Miller kept the vibes coming throughout the night and his performance was certainly worth seeing. Blending the dim environment and the diverse crowd of the bar with the acoustic confidence of Miller made it feel like he was at the center of the Iron Horse universe and that his voice was pulling everyone into orbit.

Peadar Angelone can be reached at [email protected]