Old 97’s singer-songwriter to play Radio City Music Hall

Mike Schoeck

With Dallas country rock quartet the Old 97’s on hiatus, singer Rhett Miller has released his “The Instigator,” his first solo effort on Elektra Records.

With collaborator and pop-rock studio producer Jon Brion at his disposal, Miller’s release is looser and less rough than a usual Old 97 effort, but more plainly acoustic-geared.

Miller lived three blocks from the World Trade Center prior to Sept. 11 with fiancee Erica. His local touring circuit included New York’s Knitting Factory, Town Hall and Fez Under Time.

Miller will be back in the area in March, playing the Whittemore Center in Durham, N.H., on March 4 and Radio City Music Hall on March 6 and 7.

Since Sept. 11 he married, moved to L.A with a new album in the works and toured with veteran big name band turns successful solo act Neil Finn, formerly of Crowded House.

With Jon Brion (producer with Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith and the Wallflowers) and guest artists Robyn Hitchcock, John Doe and David Garza, Miller’s release is uncannily similar to the sound of alt-country crooner Vic Chesnutt as well as releases from solo acts and expatriated bandleaders like Beck, Ryan Adams and Pete Yorn.

Unique about Miller and Brion’s collaboration is that just as the guitar line for songs like “Things that Disappear” and “Hover” turns into the off-road country twang of an Old 97’s song, Brion fills in chimes and orchestrated effects as a layer with a more muted electric guitar. This yields a much more ornate foreground that showcases Miller’s blue-eyed soulful voice and acoustic strumming.

The few subtle traces of Old 97’s, not a bad thing, are found on “The El,” a hopping country shuffle with guest singer John Doe and the distorted guitar chops of David Garza, reminiscent of the 97’s rendition of “Old El Paso” and their smash hit “Timebomb.”

“Come Around” is the atypical weepy pop song, but one of the many tracks that standout for the dynamic between Miller, Brion and drummer Josh Freese. The dynamic pop sound is Pete Yorn and the Wallflowers meeting Beck with a pure crooning American voice like Ryan Adams.

Although Brion didn’t collaborate on Beck’s latest, “Sea Change,” “Your Nervous Heart” drifts into the somber Beck aptitude but pervades with Miller’s boyish bluesy lyrics:

“I know the world’s a bitch, don’t get me wrong / You’ve got to give the world the finger / You’ve got to sing a happy song / Making love’s by far the better part.”