SAN FRANCISCO — If Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller was aiming for a high degree of difficulty going into his show on Friday night at Slim’s, he succeeded at setting the bar high. The stage wasn’t draped in an elaborate set, Miller wasn’t flanked by a backline of musicians and there weren’t any complex light shows. Miller hit the stage with his guitar, his voice and stories and anecdotes spanning nearly three decades.
Miller proceeded to dive deep into his songbook of Old 97’s and solo material as he serenaded the Bay Area crowd for more than an hour and a half. Miller opened his set with a rousing performance of “Doreen,” off of 1994’s Hitchike to Rome. The show was a special opportunity for fans to see Rhett Miller in an intimate club setting instead of the larger venues or festival lineups that comprise the Old 97’s itinerary.
Miller lauded San Francisco as the “capital of weirdness” and reminisced about his favorite Bay Area musical memories that influenced him, from the Kingston Trio to Lenny Bruce. It was a night of milestones for Miller, who remembered it had been nearly a year to the day since the Old 97’s played the Fillmore, but also the same month that his band began 25 years earlier.
He told stories of the band’s early days in Dallas as a trio before adding drummer Philip Peeples, and joked about adding guitarist Ken Bethea to the band because “they thought he was really good—but it turned out he wasn’t—but he got better.” Miller’s experience as a battle-tested road warrior showed on stage as he seamlessly worked his way through the roughly 25-song set.
The intimate venue provided the perfect backdrop to give Miller a personal connection with the crowd, giving it the feel of a house party. Miller led the audience in singalongs of favorites like “Big Brown Eyes” and “Barrier Reef.” For a band with a nearly 25-year track record, the crowd was generationally diverse, with fans in the mid-20s and older.
The stories continued late into the evening as Miller described the inspiration behind the writing of his songs—from a “girl in Pomona” on “Roller Skate Skinny,” to Frank Sinatra having a heart attack on stage, to conversations with family about religion on “Jesus Loves You.” Before launching into “Good with God,” his co-write with Brandi Carlisle, Miller told the story of finding out the song had been named the No. 2 song of 2017 by American Songwriter Magazine. Miller lamented being saddled with the genre designation of alt-country in the mid-’90s and the difficulty of describing what that meant.
Miller closed out his main set with the fitting career retrospective “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive” before returning to the stage for a four-song encore including “Question” and “Nineteen.” He said the Old 97’s rarely ever play it live because Bethea believes it sounds too much like a hit. He finished with a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and “Timebomb.”
Miller personally introduced opener Matthew Ryan. Ryan, who has an endearing personality, gave a strong performance of “everyman” anthems of love, loss and memories of days gone. He joked about the tone of his songs that he was more “Leonard Cohen than Kajagoogoo growing.” Ryan’s deep, gravely rasp executed his set faithfully and made for a natural complement to Rhett Miller’s set.