The Interpreter: Live at Largo
Maximum Sunshine Records
I’ve always wanted to make it to Largo, the L.A. nightclub that throughout much of the ’90s and early aughts regularly played host to singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Neil Finn as well as comedians like Patton Oswalt, Larry David, and Jack Black, and where on many Friday nights producer/ singer-songwriter/ film composer Jon Brion would hold court for improvisational jam sessions that might feature Elvis Costello, Benmont Tench, Brad Mehldau, Chris Thile, or Fiona Apple. The club relocated to bigger digs in 2008, leaving behind many fondly remembered performances and what was reportedly a unique atmosphere. But the old Largo lives again now on this disc from Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller, who was also a regular denizen of the club. Rather than tapping the catalog of his alt-country band or his own somewhat poppier solo work though, Miller here tackles a set of cover tunes from some of his musical heroes and contemporaries. While by no means a polished live album, it nevertheless captures something of what it must have been like to be at Largo on any given night as Miller kicked back to have some fun with friends.
Early on, it’s the song selections that may bring a smile to your face more than the performances themselves. Miller opens with a campfire sing-a-long quality version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and an unadorned, occasionally amateurish run through Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” Similarly, Miller’s take on Elvis Costello’s “Brilliant Mistake” might make you want to reach for King of America but it’s unlikely to make you want to listen to this version ever again.
Fortunately, the record and performances get better. Jon Brion (who has produced some of Miller’s solo work) joins in on piano for the Wilco/ Billy Bragg/ Woody Guthrie classic “California Stars.” A pair of David Bowie tunes (“Queen Bitch” and “The Bewlay Brothers”) that also feature Brion impress with their musical ambition and fun performances. The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which Miller describes as “only the greatest song ever written by any human being” is another great choice, even if he struggles with the vocal range needed to pull it off completely.
There’s also a nifty medley of The Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” and The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” “Wave of Mutilation” also appears here in a bonus track studio version with Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago. There’s a terrific studio version of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Cynthia Mask” as well.
The live cuts also include Miller’s straightforward take on Aztec Camera’s “The Birth of the True,” which I’ve found has somewhat strangely become a touchstone for a lot us who grew up during the ’80s. Miller reportedly performed the song at his first ever public performance as a freshman in high school.
Brion’s piano turns The Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead” into a barrelhouse number while Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” becomes a honky-tonk tearjerker in the hands of Miller and Brion.
The album’s most affecting moment comes as Miller pays tribute to Elliott Smith, who was also a frequent performer at Largo before his death in 2003. Introducing a cover of Smith’s beautiful and intricate “Happiness,” Miller tells the crowd Smith was so great, he’s barely able to pull off the song.
“I miss him and I’m going to miss Largo and this whole thing is a very magical time and place and things like this don’t come along very often,” Miller said.
The Interpreter, the first release on Miller’s own label, Maximum Sunshine Records, ultimately proves to be a fine tribute to the spirit of Largo, if not necessarily the best showcase of Miller’s talent. While not quite like being there, the record at least serves as a pleasant time capsule and trip down memory lane for those lucky enough to have been a part of the Largo scene.
Rhett Miller: www.rhettmiller.com