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Old 97's Miller Ignites Cradle Show With New Take on Old Material

Rhett Miller and the Instigators
Cat's Cradle

Rhett Miller has some unfinished business.

The frontman of country-rock group the Old 97's is touring the nation with his own backup band to promote his poppy new solo album, The Instigator.

But Monday night at the Cat's Cradle, Miller's performance had a secondary purpose. If the individually charged show was any indication, Miller has another task he wants to take care of before moving forward with a solo career -- reclaiming the songs he performed with the Old 97's as his own.

And with the vigor and grit of an unheralded fighter, reclaim them he did.

Not that he never had ownership of these tunes to begin with. The Old 97's classics that constituted about half of Miller's set originally were written by his biting pen, but when mixed with the propulsive musical stampede of the band, the identity of those songs could get trampled.

The band that backed Miller on Monday night will draw no such comparisons to his original group, placing all the weight of carrying the show on Miller's shoulders.

He started out sluggish, unable to transfer the straight-forward structure of his solo songs into something that could ignite a crowd only moderate in number.

But when Miller launched into "Jagged" and "Rollerskate Skinny" -- songs at the top end of the last two Old 97's albums -- he sang and played with a commanding presence.

Midway through the show, he put that presence to the ultimate test, sending his band off stage for a solo acoustic set of Old 97's tunes.

And the tunes he chose, such as the yearning "Buick City Complex" and the fiery romp of "Doreen," were ones known for the powerful treatment the Old 97's supplied.

But Miller's voice and aggressive acoustic guitar work rose to the challenge. No longer in danger of being drowned out by his band, Miller's considerable talents as both a songwriter and a performer were on full display.

Those talents didn't disappear when Miller's backup band returned to run through the remainder of songs from his solo album. But these songs, while well-crafted, lined up awkwardly with a variety of Old 97's tunes sprinkled through the rest of the show.

"Come Around" and "World Inside a World" relied on more subtle textures and as a result sounded static when compared to the full-on impact of the Old 97's songs. Curiously enough, Miller's vocal delivery on his solo songs lacked the same authority and sense of ownership that he commanded over his old tunes.

But even in a more hesitant musical state, Miller never lacked for charisma and showmanship. Defiantly gyrating and head-banging as if priming for a fight, Miller managed to convey the same bruised-but-not-battered demeanor of the colorful characters who inhabit his songs.

Whether or not his solo album is a commercial success, shows like Monday night's confirmed that Miller's star is rising by stepping out on his own. Should he reunite with his old bandmates in the next couple of years -- as Miller has said he plans to -- his experiences performing solo only should elevate the band's work.

If nothing else, Monday's show should serve as a challenge for the members of the Old 97's to step up their musical output.

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Their songs are now Miller's for the taking.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at