I met Joey’s Song founder Mike Gomoll after he e-mailed me, suggesting we should meet based on the overlap between artists that had donated songs to his charity CDs and ones that had played my basement. He’s a gregarious guy, always smiling and always happy to see you. It’s no surprise that he’s lined up an impressive roster of artists for his CDs and for his benefit shows. Last year’s show featured Sammy Llanas, Freedy Johnston and Robbie Fulks. While two thirds of them had been in my basement, this year my batting average wasn’t as high. Moving from the cavernous gym at Pooleys to the more music-friendly room at the High Noon probably helped ticket sales, but having the Old 97’s charismatic lead singer Rhett Miller on the bill probably helped even more. There were only forty tickets left for the 400 capacity room when the doors opened, so I was surprised to see a half empty room when I got there. I blame either the torrential downpour just an hour prior to showtime or the fact that it was a benefit. While people want to help the cause, not all of them are music fans.
I had missed the first musician entirely due to a conflicting early start time and a yoga class, but got there as Miles Nielsen was setting up. I’ve seen Nielsen a couple times and always enjoyed him. He is friends with my usual sound guy and Trevor had already told Nielsen all about the House of Righteous Music, and he was interested in playing. So maybe my average will go up. He’s sometimes backed by a great band which includes the terrific Dan McMahon, but he left them home tonight. Which would have been just fine, except that the chatty crowd was a lot louder than he was. For most of the set I could tune them out, hearing just the music, but every so often it became obvious just how loud it was. For his part, Nielsen was incredibly professional, playing to the handful of us up front that were paying attention, but it had to be difficult. On the stage around him sat several antique looking, gold plated elephant lamps, “I have a hundred of these,” he joked/explained, “I bring these along so that I always feel at home.” I’d like to think he was joking, but having seen the Rick’s Picks exhibit of his dad’s rock & roll memorabilia, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he was a hoarder.
I’ve seen Rhett Miller many many times over the years, from a show at the tiny O’Cayz Corral to last year’s Too Far to Care anniversary tour at the Overture Center, with many solo shows in between, and this may be the least amount of people Miller has ever played to in Madison. There was still a throng of people up front, hanging on every word, but the crowd thinned quickly as you moved away from the stage. The good news was that the people who had talked through Nielsen’s set were likely the ones who had left. There were few surprises in Miller’s set, a near equal mix of solo tunes and band songs, except maybe Gomoll’s request for “Singular Girl.” I’ve always found Miller’s solo stuff sappy and somewhat cheesy, a surprise given the whip-smart nature of the Old 97’s material (especially the earlier stuff), but live it is never as cloying. His “duet” on “Fireflies” from his second solo release, in which he sings the male vocal from one side of the mike and the female from the other, is always nothing less than adorable, and “Four-eyed Girl” and “Come Around” from his first have held up better than expected.
The songs of the Old 97’s are always the highlight though. He still puts a ridiculous amount of energy into classic singalong, cow-punk songs like “Big Brown Eyes” and the frenetically infectious “Doreen.” By the end of the set his shirt is soaked and his surprisingly stylish mullet sprays sweat in every direction as he shakes his head wildly during every song. The girls, and probably some of the guys, all squeal when he windmills his arm from the elbow down, the propeller like motion unexpectedly in time across the strings of the guitar. While I haven’t loved any Old 97’s record since Satellite Rides the occasional
reminder that Blame It on Gravity and Drag It Up exist isn’t so bad. Last year’s tour may have inspired the inclusion of such deep classics as “The Melt Show” and “Salome,” both awesome, in tonight’s set. And like every Old 97’s show for as long as I can remember, he ended with the explosive “Time Bomb.”
I’ve never seen anyone as happy as Gomoll was tonight, beaming at the edge of the stage as his friend Rhett Miller played a sweaty, sincere set for a good cause. When I told Gomoll later that Nielsen was going to play the house someday, he was excited, “we need to get Rhett there too!” I’m in!