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Monday, January 11, 2016

Last Night: Rhett Miller and a Slew of Others Performed at the Singer's Third Annual Wheels Off Show

Posted By on Mon, Jan 11, 2016 at 1:29 PM

click to enlarge Rhett Miller and Paul F. Tompkins performing a cover of "Ace of Spades." - ERIC MILLMAN
  • Eric Millman
  • Rhett Miller and Paul F. Tompkins performing a cover of "Ace of Spades."


Rhett Miller

Featuring Paul F. Tompkins, Michael Chabon, Janet Varney, and John Roderick
Sunday, January 10th, 2016
Swedish American Hall


Toward the end of Rhett Miller’s Third Annual Wheels Off show, John Roderick looked at his host, the indefatigable, impossibly youthful Old 97’s singer, and shook his head. “I’d like to point out,” said The Long Winters’ frontman, “that Rhett is only two years younger than me: That means something is really fucked up.”

Roderick is right. With his mop-top hair, his Elvis-like hip thrusts, and his self-effacing charm, Miller seems more teen idol than his actual 45 years. And, as tonight’s Sketchfest audience would discover, the dude's funny, too. Throw in a slew of talented friends and it’s enough to make you want to puke.

In this installment of Wheels Off, Miller’s version of an old-timey variety show, a packed Sunday night crowd was treated to some two hours of music, stand-up, non-fiction, and an absurd sketch about tyrannical Smurfs. It was, dare I say, a pleasant way to spend a Sunday.

Miller kicked things off with a little bit of hyperbole, claiming this show to be his very favorite of the year. By the time he got going, however, it was hard not to believe him. With his blonde Gibson making its onstage debut, he energized the quiet, cozy venue with Townshend-esque strumming and a winning smile. A rare brand of acoustic Old 97s classics meshed with melancholic country heartache songs throughout the set.  

But tonight was not about Miller alone. Local hero Michael Chabon, author of such hits as Wonder Boys and The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, treated the more literary types to an old piece of non-fiction, and he did not disappoint. With cell phone in hand, Chabon matched the night’s folksy charm in reciting “Against Dickitude,” a playfully earnest discourse on simply how to not be a dick. Culling tales of his son’s early flirtation with chauvinism and his own failed attempts to keep such dickitude at bay, his charm and talent were on equal display.

Surprisingly, Paul F. Tompkins – who was on approximately his zillionth Sketchfest appearance of the festival – brought an uncharacteristically flat bit to the show. Riffing on novelty cans of peanut brittle for the entirety of his set, the always-dapper veteran of such brilliance as Mr. Show and Comedy Bang-Bang extended an amusing concept a bit longer than it could hold. While the man sitting directly behind me would disagree, guffawing with phlegmatic joy throughout, the routine proved to be a slight disappointment for one of standup’s best.

Of course, the disappointment didn’t last long. Miller returned to join Tompkins in a heartfelt tribute to “the guy looking up at us from hell” with a rollicking cover of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades”. The two traded off vocals with surprising force, leaving one to wonder how Lemmy might have sounded were he actually a well-groomed comedian contributing vocals to an alt-country cover with Rhett Miller.

The Miller-centric duets continued with the aforementioned Roderick, as well as festival co-founder Janet Varney, though with decidedly less metal involved. Varney – perhaps best known for cohosting the last gasp of TBS’ Dinner and a Movie, but a competent singer in her own right – overwhelmed a bit on John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves." On their second number, however – Miller’s latest single, "Most In The Summertime" – the pair gelled much better, singing with a playful spirit that matched the upbeat tone of the entire evening. The performers were having a great time and this spread to the crowd.

It’s worth noting that I’d always thought of Miller as a sort of Texan Josh Ritter. He’s a fine singer-songwriter, to be sure, and so damn likeable that the misanthrope inside you wouldn’t mind taking him down just a notch. Yet, when witnessed live, full of such energy and humor, and especially when surrounded by this talent, Miller’s indomitable charisma could crack the staunchest of cynics. Wheels Off was hardly a life-changing experience, but as pure entertainment, it was great for audience and performer alike. And probably for that guy with the guffaw above all.


CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK:
  • John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves” was originally written for Billy Bob Thorton’s Daddy and Them, a film that effectively derailed Billy Bob’s directing career. Too bad.
  • Michael Chabon sported a cold, reportedly for the second Wheels Off in a row. That’s commitment.
  • The Miller-Chabon number, entitled “Victorville," was directly inspired by Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Incidentally, asking my uncle what a Steely Dan was proved to be amongst the most traumatic moments of my young life to date.
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Eric Millman

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