The billing of Rhett Miller and Black Prairie at Club Cafe raised more questions than anything else. Were they playing separate sets? Was Portland's Black Prairie (complete with 4/5ths of The Decemberists) going to be the Old 97s frontman's backing band on his solo tour? Or was it a little of both? Neither website provided any information.
As it turned out, Saturday's show at the sold-out Club Cafe exceeded all expectations.
This was Black Prairie's second time here -- "We're really excited to be in Pittsburgh," said bassist Nate Query. "We read that Pittsburgh is the new Portland" -- and let's hope it's the second of many. The 6-piece band has a rootsy bluegrass core, but seems capable of anything. As Miller would later comment, "You guys seem like you spend a lot of time practicing your instruments." Indeed. They are a seamless unit, colored by the virtuosic string work of Chris Funk (on slide, banjo, etc.) and Jon Neufeld and the tasteful accordion/fiddle pairing of Jenny Conlee and Annalisa Tornfelt, respectively, with bassist Query and drummer John Moen the galloping rhythm section.
Tornfelt, a rather unknown commodity, comes off as someone whose arm was twisted to get out front and sing. She's a timid frontwoman who launches into almost every song hesitantly, but on songs like "How You Ruin Me" they all blossom as her voice opens up by the end. One of the prettiest was "What You Gave Me," an understated ballad that could bring you to tears. Once again, the bar crowd at Club Cafe was talkative and rude but Black Prairie was able to romp over them with gypsy jams like "Dirty River Stomp" and "Richard Manuel," which had Tornfelt blowing people away with a Stroh Violin, an odd Romanian instrument that amplifies the violin with an attached horn, creating a Victrola effect. She is a true wonder.
Black Prairie brought its set to a stunning conclusion with a metal-grass jam through Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same" that challenged Thornfelt to match Robert Plant's sexual wails, and she nailed them.
Not many solo artists want to follow a band, but it's no problem for Rhett Miller, the very opposite of a timid frontman. The Old 97s are due here in March at Mr. Smalls but I'm not sure this wasn't the best way to see him, as the solo performance not only spiked his energy but put the emphasis on how just clever he is as a songwriter.
He bashed away at his acoustic guitar, doing mini Townshend windmills, and threw his hair back and forth as he belted out his songs like his life depended on it. Only a few songs in, he was already flinging sweat everywhere.
For a handsome guy, he certainly writes a lot of neurotic and insecure songs about love and relationships: among them "Lost Without You," "I Need to Know Where I Stand" and "Out of Love," on which he cries, "I'm only happy when I'm singing a sad, sad song!"
He mixed solo material with Old 97s faves like "Lonely Holiday" (a timely one for Manti Te'o), "Barrier Reef" and "Melt Show." At one point, he noted, "I just realized the last 12 songs I just did are about how love is full of [s---]," and that's where he excels.
He called Tornfelt to the stage for a gorgeous reading of "Fireflies" and then introduced the full Black Prairie, for the second time they would play together (the first being the night before). They did Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" and "California Stars" (from the Wilco/Billy Bragg tribute to Woody Guthrie) and ripped through a frantic cover of "Wreck of the Old 97," with Miller doing his best Johnny Cash. They also had a blast raising their voices on the Old 97s' "Broadway."
By the time they were finished, it wasn't crazy to think that the Decemberists could occasionally use a more unleashed frontman than Colin Meloy, and Miller could use a rootsier band than the 97s.
The tireless Miller put an exclamation point on a great night with a solo take on Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression."
RHETT MILLER SET LIST (may be one or two songs missing in middle)
Lost Without You
Help Me, Suzanne
The Grand Theatre
I Need to Know Where I Stand
This is What I Do
Out of Love
Question (with a great story about his hot but mean French teacher)
Fireflies (with Lisa Tornfelt)
Big Brown Eyes
Every Night is Friday Night
Broadway (w/Black Prairie)
You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (w/BP)
California Stars (w/BP)
Wreck of the Old 97 (w/BP)