Frontman of the Old 97s and accomplished solo artist Rhett Miller coming to F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre
Singer-songwriter Rhett Miller is known as the frontman for the alternative country quartet Old 97s, but throughout almost 25 years of touring, he’s found time to cultivate a critically acclaimed solo career. With seven solo albums under his belt, 2015’s “The Traveler” the most recent, Miller has embarked on an acoustic tour that brings him to Wilkes-Barre.
Miller will perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 20 at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts with opening act Salim Nourallah. An accomplished guitarist with a knack for telling stories, Miller will showcase his solo efforts as part of the venue’s Chandelier Lobby Series.
Although he loves touring with the Old 97s, taking the stage solo was always part of Miller’s repertoire.
“I made the first solo record in high school, a record called Mythologies, and I was still young,” Miller said “I had played with a few other people, and it was fun, but I really was going out and opening for a lot of punk rock shows just by myself.”
As a solo act, Miller opened for the likes of Lords of the New Church and Chris Isaak. Following 1989’s Mythologies, Miller formed the Old 97s with bass player and producer Murry Hammond, and it wasn’t until 2002 when he made another solo record.
“The stints in the 97s have been great, but it was really fun for me to get back into making solo records,” Miller said. “We had just finished making Satellite Ride, and I had this big bunch of songs left over that the band wasn’t into, so I asked for their permission to make solo records. Now I get to do that about half the time, and it’s really fun.”
Other than Mythologies, Miller had a string of solo records with direct titles. The Instigator, The Believer, The Interpreter, The Dreamer and The Traveler were released around one self titled album, 2009’s Rhett Miller.
“I think everybody has a bunch of different people in them, at the risk of sounding philosophical,” Miller said. “In each of the records, I look at the batch of songs and realize, this side of me is coming out.’ I can kind of go through each of the records and sort of see, not the character I was playing on them but the side of my personality that was getting the spotlight in that record.”
The Traveler is a collection of folk songs dipped in different sonic stylings, showcasing Miller’s country, pop, rock and alternative tendencies. The album was recorded with Portland’s Black Prairie, a group that shares members with The Decembrists.
“They’re so much fun to work with, and to be able to submerge myself in a band that wasn’t the Old 97s and wasn’t just me, was really cool,” Miller said. “It didn’t feel like a solo record as much as it felt like I got to moonlight in another band for the album.”
The multitude of genres on The Traveler was a testament to the process of being in studio with great musicians, Miller said. From the bouncy Kinks-style “Reasons to Live” to the sad lyricism cloaked in a happy tune of “Most in the Summertime,” Miller let songs develop as they were recorded.
“My favorite music, the way it works best, is it sort of dictates what it’s going to be,” he said. “You can have an idea of how you think it should sound, but you just follow the song and let it lead you wherever it’s going to go. Just being in there with Chris Funk and with Black Prairie, it was really cool. I got to sit back. On the solo records in the past, it’s been a thing where I’ve had to really run the show. The case with this one, I got to sit back and let the music evolve, not just on its own, but through the process of being performed by these great musicians and everybody having so much input.”
More input on the album came from an idol of Miller’s, Peter Buck of R.E.M.
“This guy … was my hero, musically and as a person, and such a guiding light musically through my life, and now he’s somebody I get to pal around with, and I get to pick his brain,” Miller said. “One thing I love about music is just that. You get to be friends with these people who you admire so much. Peter was somebody I looked forward to working with, and I feel really lucky, in general in my career but specifically with regards to Peter Buck. He’s just such a cool dude.”
With a year of recording with accomplished artists and mingling with icons under his belt, Miller looks forward to sharing his music with more audiences. The Kirby Center should be an ideal place for his laid back performance style.
“I love the intimacy of the acoustic show,” Miller said. “It sounds like the Kirby Center is going to offer the perfect kind of setting for — I don’t want to go full storyteller — but I think it might offer the perfect setting for an acoustic show that features both singing and expostulating.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or [email protected]
IF YOU GO
What: Rhett Miller with opening act Salim Nourallah
Where: F.M. Kirby Center, 71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 20
Additional Information: Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 the day of the show, and they are available by calling 570-826-1100 or online at www.kirbycenter.org.