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Rhett Miller w/ Christopher Paul Stelling
July 14 @ 8:00 pm
– 7PM DOORS / 8PM SHOW
– ALL AGES
– SEATED SHOW
– LIMITED NUMBER OF PREMIUM SEATING TICKETS AVAILABLE
Texas native Rhett Miller is perhaps best known as the frontman of the Dallas-based alt-country band the Old 97’s, although he has also pursued a critically acclaimed solo career. Formed in 1993, the Old 97’s built a devoted following with their brash blend of country and power pop influences, making a splash with 1995’s Wreck Your Life, which won the group a brief stay on the roster of Elektra Records, a period kicked off with one of their finest hours, 1997’s Too Far to Care. All four members also pursued side projects, but Miller’s solo career captured the most attention, with the literate songwriter training his eye on such subjects as fatherhood, sex, and love. Making his solo bow with 2002’s The Instigator, most of Miller’s solo albums have been dominated by cool, melodic pop tunes with a drier and more confessional bent than his work with the band, though 2012’s The Dreamer explored a middle ground between his pop and altcountry sensibilities, and the 2011 set The Interpreter: Live at Largo revealed he’s a sure hand with other people’s songs.
Strictly speaking, Miller launched his own career before the Old 97’s were formed. He recorded his first solo album, a series of acoustic folk songs entitled Mythologies, in 1989. Future Old 97’s bassist (and a solid songwriter in his own right) Murry Hammond produced the album, and their partnership later blossomed into a full-fledged band. While releasing a string of well-received albums with the Old 97’s, Miller and Hammond also performed together as the Ranchero Brothers, a two-man acoustic duo that was originally launched as a means of testing new music for the Old 97’s in front of a live audience. The Ranchero Brothers developed their own distinct following, although no albums resulted from the project.
Taking time off from the Old 97’s, Miller began recording his first major-label solo effort in February 2002, this time with the help of producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion. The Instigator appeared nearly seven months later, followed by a tour with ex-Crowded House frontman Neil Finn in early 2003. Miller then returned to the studio with the Old 97’s, squashing worried rumors that he planned to halt the band’s career and focus on his solo efforts. He did, however, find time to balance the two projects, and his second solo release, The Believer, was issued by Verve in February 2006.
After returning to the studio with the Old 97’s for 2007’s Blame It on Gravity, Miller continued his juggling act by recording another solo album. The self-titled record appeared in 2009 courtesy of his new label, Shout! Factory. His next two solo albums, 2010’s The Interpreter: Live at Largo and 2012’s The Dreamer, were both released by Miller’s own Maximum Sunshine label. After releasing one of the Old 97’s’ strongest albums in years with 2014’s Most Messed Up, Miller took a new turn in his solo career with 2015’s The Traveler, which featured backing from the band Black Prairie (which includes several members of the Decemberists) and a guest appearance from Peter Buck of R.E.M. Following more recording and touring with the Old 97’s, Miller repaired to Brooklyn, New York, where he cut the 2018 album The Messenger with producer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen, who previously worked with Apollo Sunshine and Yellowbirds. The album was released by ATO Records.
Even before 2020 slid historically off the rails, Christopher Paul Stelling confronted an essential exercise in acceptance and gratitude. In December 2019, Stelling started another cross-country sprint from California to Florida, where the songwriter who has long called western North Carolina home was raised. Aside from recording his fifth album, Best of Luck, he had toured much of that year, making relentless laps around North America. He wanted to make it home not only for Christmas but also to see Emma, his 92-year-old grandmother. He didn’t; she passed just days before he arrived. Recorded alone in her modest white ranch house in Daytona Beach, Forgiving It All—Stelling’s wisest, most intimate, and most settled record yet, and his first self-released LP in eight years—feels like a final tribute to her and to everything he and we have lost or gained.
Last year seemed to brim with transformational potential for Stelling. For the better part of a decade, he had been a feverish and itinerant troubadour, spilling guts and blood and sweat in soul-scraping solo sets. He’d lived up the lifestyle, too, hydrating for the stage with booze. But at the end of 2017, he’d gone sober after recognizing that chunks of his life had disappeared. Recorded a year later, Best of Luck—his third album for Anti- and the first he’d cut with a producer, Ben Harper—seemed poised to push him to new audiences, its mix of wistful acoustic ballads and stomp-around-the-room rock somehow both polished and primal. The shows were piling up, so much so that Stelling planned to have barely one day off in all of 2020.
And then, of course, all that was scrapped. The news closed in around him as he toured north along the West Coast. He turned east and got as far as Colorado, then had a panic attack in a Kansas truck stop, wrestling with existential and professional despair as the world wobbled on its axis. Stelling came home and, like many of us, worked to shape a new routine in a world that was instantly alien. So for the first time in years, he spent days on end with his partner, Julia, and their bounding young dog, Ida. He hiked, read, and watched endless television to placate overwhelming anxiety as best he could. Having fulfilled his label contract (and convinced he didn’t want a new one, anyway), Stelling launched a crowdfunding campaign, asking if fans felt compelled to invest in his songs. They said yes—he sold more records in those first 48 hours than he’d ever sold in advance before.
Stelling began at last to unpack a decade into which he had packed so much. What had music taught him that life had not, and vice versa? What did he have to sing about all that he had seen? The spellbinding 10 tracks of Forgiving It All represent the profound distillates of that reflection. Committed to tape in Emma’s home a year after Stelling cut his intended never-ending tour short, these songs are the lessons of a once-wild kid looking at (not quite) 40, expressing acceptance for the struggles and joys of life and singing out his gratitude for still being here. Opener “Die To Know” is a tender ode to innocence, a remembrance of simple joy and sincerity before experience and age dulled our enthusiasms. “Wildfire,” which moves with the ineffable grace of ripples on some idyllic pond, stares down accreted adult fears and begs for the mercy of rebirth.
“WWYLLYD” presents an exercise in radical empathy, apt for our universally troubled times. “Remember, everyone is suffering/not just you,” Stelling pleas over strummed chords that rush like blood. The title is an acronym for “When What You Love Lets You Down.” We’re all starving artists, it suggests, but that’s what keeps us going, interested, and, if we’re lucky, alive.
To some extent, these songs are about letting yourself off the hook, about accepting your imperfections even as you deal with them. But title track “Forgiving It All,” as mesmerizing and motivational as a religious mantra, admits that we don’t bear responsibility for all of our baggage, that others have played a part. If we’re going to reckon with ourselves, Stelling says, we have to encourage others to do the same, to share in this catharsis. “Let the doubtful confide in you,” he sings near the start, opening what may feel like the most candid therapy session you’ve ever encountered. Stelling—truth be told, a marquee fingerpicker who’s never been content to make purely wordless music—pauses for the gorgeous instrumental “For Your Drive,” then ends with a hymn of his own, “They’ll All Proclaim.” It is a gracious, gorgeous aubade for what comes after—tomorrow, post-pandemic, whenever.
We will wrestle for our lifetimes with what happened in 2020 and what may follow. Forgiving It All is an instinctual and honest response to trying to make the best of it: sorting through the past and using the present to prepare for an unwritten future. These songs remind us we’re lucky to be here, no matter what or who it is we have to forgive.