Rhett Miller has quite the extended family.
The longtime Old 97’s frontman and accomplished solo artist has spent years with the likes of Caroline, Jennifer 1, and Rollerskate Skinny — characters in his songs that he brings to life with a sweat-soaked fervor each time he performs. Miller doesn’t make concept albums, but the country-rock ballads and rollicking anthems he’s been penning since 1993 tell an ever-evolving story of what it means to be stubborn and lovesick.
While the Old 97’s currently tour behind their 11th studio album, Graveyard Whistling, Miller has managed to wedge in a few solo shows along the West Coast, arranged as a way to take his real family — the ones that don’t live inside his acoustic — on a short summer trip.
“My kids are both in the double digits now,” Miller says. “And I really wanted to bring them to California, and specifically, to show them San Francisco.”
In addition to plans for a visit to City Lights Bookstore and some sushi, Miller is excited to take his family down to Watsonville, where they’ll camp in an airstream trailer. While his kids are reportedly less than thrilled about the excursion —“They think it’s the grossest idea ever,” Miller says — having them in the audience for his show at The Chapel is what Miller is most enthusiastic about.
“They don’t see me play,” he explains. “If they ever see me play, it’s because I agree to do a gig at their school, like at a fundraiser, where nobody gives a crap about who I am or what I do, and I can sometimes tell that they watch me do those gigs and they think like, ‘This is it? This is what you do for a living when you leave us?’ ”
What Miller actually does is bring wit and manic charm to every stage he takes. A Rhett Miller solo show is a communal affair, the line between audience and artist blurred. During Miller’s last visit to The Chapel — his preferred venue in the city these days — he gladly welcomed an 8-year-old audience member on to the stage to duet with him after she let it be known that she knew every word to his song “Fireflies.”
While Miller has a keen appreciation for the legacy of rock ’n’ roll, he says he’s glad to see the barrier that has long kept rock gods at a distance from their fans starting to crumble.
“It’s really important to me to feel like there is no fourth wall,” he says. “The mystique that used to make it impossible for an audience to feel as if they were even remotely similar to the person on the stage is gone. I love the idea that we now live in a world where people acknowledge that musicians are — as they say in the tabloids — just like us.”
That said, it’s not like Miller doesn’t become a deity on stage. Watch him play Old 97’s classics like “Barrier Reef” or “Timebomb” and you’ll notice his right arm gain momentum as he furiously strums away. The move goes by several names. Miller says some fans have dubbed it “The half-Townshend” in honor of The Who’s iconic guitarist, Pete Townshend, but he prefers another fan-suggested offering: “The Windmiller.” Whatever you choose to call it, watching Miller’s vociferous arm swing in action gives the sense that one is getting everything he can possibly give. And they are.
“I end up doing it a lot,” Miller says. “People used to ask if it hurt my arm and if I was going to injure myself. I would always laugh and say it’s really more of an optical illusion — it doesn’t really involve that much of a strain on the ligaments.”
Now, at 46 years old, he’s started to notice his elbow hurting after a long tour.
“I realized, ‘Oh, they were right, and I’m a dummy.’ ”
Fans of Miller shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Dallas native is willing to put his body at risk in the name of performing. For 31 years, he’s been pacing stages, belting out choruses, and testing the durability of guitar strings.
One thing he has come to realize is that the songs he writes will never be the type of hushed, mopey numbers that demand absolute silence from a crowd. Humor has always gone hand-in-hand with Miller’s work. On the latest Old 97’s record, the playful song “Jesus Loves You” prods the idea that even though Jesus may offer the ultimate love, he’s not the one sitting next to you.
For Miller, lacing his songs with equal parts sorrow and silliness has long been a recipe for success.
“If there’s something that comes really naturally to me, it’s just laughing at the foibles of being human — especially trying to connect with another human being and just how awkward that is,” he says. “I love that, because I feel like the things that drive us to the darkest places — the things that are most likely to drive us to suicide — are often the things that can be mined for the best comedy. It’s a fine line between laughing and jumping off a bridge.”
Rhett Miller plays at 9 p.m., Wednesday, July 19, at The Chapel. $20-$22; thechapelsf.com