Wednesday, Jan. 9
Cat's Cradle, Carrboro
"I'm not related to Buddy and Julie, but I did spring from an uneaten piece of popcorn in their kitchen sink," offered opener and ex-V-Roy Scott Miller, in a rather Robyn Hitchcockian aside. Actually, it fits with Miller's solo stage persona, a cross between Roger Miller wit and Steve Martin zaniness--you half expect a "Now I'm going to suck this harmonica-holding stool into my lungs with this straw" out of him. He mixes it up between Loudon Wainwright III-ish folk-rock with acoustic pub-rock, topped off with smart, frequently personal lyrics. During his 13-song set--capped by a rare opening-act encore--Miller visited half of last year's superb Thus Always to Tyrants, hitting with equal skill and enthusiasm both the roots ("Dear Sarah" and "Highland County Boy") and the rock ("Made a Mess of This Town" and "I Won't Go with You"). "Good Morning Midnight," from his self-released live album Are You With Me?, featured an audience-tickling, George Jones-style mid-song oration, while the thus-far unreleased "Ciderville Saturday Night" showcased his ace guitar-picking skills. Miller even had some fun with the Cradle's half-seated/half-standing room set-up, coaxing the crowd into a little "Tastes Great!"--"Less Filling!" and "Rock Club!"--"Listening Room!" interplay. But all kidding was put aside for "Fade Away," his tribute to a sister lost to cancer, a song that proves that plain-spoken sentiments ("Your eyes are mine/Your fingers fit my hands") are the most powerful.
It was fitting that the first of Buddy and Julie Miller's 22-song set was Richard Thompson's "Keep Your Distance," the opener from their late-2001 eponymous release, because Buddy's a guitar player of similar heroic reputation in rocky-tonk circles. Miller also possesses a room-filling voice, a booming instrument he used to great effect on "Help Wanted," a solo acoustic take on Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis," and a night-ending "I Don't Mean Maybe." (It's not for nothing that fellow traveler Robbie Fulks, in a New York Times profile, called Buddy Miller the best country-music artist working today.) And when the pair's voices come together--moonshine and honey, rawhide and roses, choose your own cliché--it can be a goose-bump-raising experience. Julie's "Little Darlin," for example, was a sound to behold, with the same twangy catch in her voice hitting at different times.
In addition to her childlike voice, Julie's stage presence can be an acquired taste, but she charmed away any of my lingering doubts with a hilarious story about meeting Bob Dylan, an encounter that, at least in her version, ended with Julie exhorting "Your words are so good. Don't be ashamed. Enunciate." Her songwriting skills, however, have never been in question, a point underscored by her spot atop the "Songwriter of the Year" category in the 2001 Country Music magazine critics' poll. And she can rock, whether she's standing front and center with a headband and twin tambourines or mining for feedback on the loud and horny "You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast," a song proudly born of "Wild Thing." Performances such as those moved a friend to anoint Julie his second favorite rock 'n' roll woman, behind Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.
In short, it was a night of jaw-dropping versatility. Honky-tonk made room for soul in the form of the Roosevelt Jamison-penned, Otis Redding-owned "That's How Strong My Love Is," which stepped aside for a roadhouse-rocking romp through Wilbert Harrison's "Let's Stay Together" only to surrender to a slow-build/slow-burn version of Utah Phillip's "Rock Salt and Nails." Aiding the cause was the veteran rhythm section of bassist Gurf Morlix (who offered the chugging title track from his upcoming sophomore solo release Fishin' in the Muddy) and drummer Bryan Owings (of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, among others), with the equally well-traveled and regarded Bob Carlin even sitting in on banjo for a few tunes. And toward the end of the night, the kernel-sprung Scott Miller joined Buddy and Julie for a lively cover of Roger Miller's "Nothing Can Stop Me." It was one of many moments that made all the pre-show "Miller Time" jokes worth enduring.