"Did anybody tell you you have a voice like Joan Baez?"
The crowd in the Dark Room on this Wednesday night after the Fourth of July is atypically small, the sort of intimate setting that engenders banter between audience members and performers. On stage, Meredith Louise Miller and Bruce Dickinson are halfway through their second set of the evening, playing their guitars and singing their lovely songs to a rapt crowd of about 20 people.
One such audience member--a man wearing shorts, black shoes and socks--sits close to the stage, sipping his neon-green beverage. After a particularly lovely number, the sort of evocative love-song narrative Miller writes and performs so well (this one containing the lyric, "My father came to pick me up in the exterminatin' truck"), this gentleman leans back in his chair and pays her the above-mentioned compliment (and it is meant as a compliment).
"DoyouknowwhoJoanBaezis?" he asks her.
"Yeah," she says, "and I plan to cut my hair short when I turn 60, also."
Miller says yes, she does indeed have a tape she's selling for five bucks. The guy tells her he doesn't have the money, but he'd be happy to trade his T-shirt for the cassette. When Miller refuses, he offers his leather belt, which the singer-songwriter finally accepts as trade.
"My phone number's on the tape," she tells him, "but don't call me or anything."
She says this without any discernable maliciousness, but with a dry and deadpan delivery, and with a sort of small laugh and tiny smile that raises more questions than it provides answers. Two hours earlier, she had ordered a martini made with potato vodka because, she explained, "the potatoes make it healthy"; she also explained that even though she was recovering from a cold, she was continuing to light up her Marlboros because "they help loosen up the phlegm." She imparts both facts with a straight face.
Meredith Miller has been back in Dallas for two months now, after having spent four years at the University of Texas at Austin studying art and ceramics and metalwork. Before she left town, she was among the regular batch of performers at Dave's Art Pawn Shop and then at Chumley's. In the wake of singers like Sara Hickman and Edie Brickell, who were beginning to experience success far outside the three streets of Deep Ellum, Miller--along with Dickinson and Rhett Miller--heralded a second generation of singer-songwriter; they were just teenagers, mostly from private schools, filled with romance and angst and promise.
Ironically, Miller says now, "I was a punk-rock kid, though you can't really hear it in my music, I guess."
Miller picked up the guitar when she was in high school at the Episcopal School of Dallas, first performing a Depeche Mode song during a talent show. She was inspired--though perhaps that's too strong a word--to begin writing songs after she saw Rhett Miller playing guitar on the lawn at a high-school arts conference in Houston when she was 14.
Miller released a cassette titled This is Not Bob, then followed it up with a CD titled Bob. In the meantime, she moved to Austin and found herself writing lots of songs (luckily for her, she didn't get the financial aid to attend her first school of choice, Bennington College in Vermont, which spawned "authors" Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Taart). Her first two years in Austin she had trouble finding gigs, landing only the occasional slot at open-mike nights at the Cactus Cafe and the Chicago House and High Times; by the time she graduated last December, she was headlining those very places on weekends.
"But Austin is ingrained in either folk or roots-rock, and I don't--as much as I can't escape it--I don't like being considered folk, and I certainly don't play roots-rock," she says, slightly laughing. "I'm a singer-songwriter. I mean, I know I write folk songs, but I don't want to title it that. Most people shy away from that unless they're, I don't know, Alison Krauss or something."
Miller began performing in Dallas again about four months ago, then moved here permanently--for now--about two months ago. She is currently sending to record labels a demo tape consisting of a handful of songs she recorded in Austin during two two-day bursts; titled ifIhadaHifi, it's a surprising and terrific work, this lush and intimate collection of songs that are funny ("Elvis"), evocative ("Hole"), and unexpected (a cover of Buddy Holly's "Wishing"). "Elvis" is the tape's keeper: Miller threatens a lover that since he won't come back, she'll just have to shack up with the late Mr. Presley. "Sorry, darlin'," she tells him, "The King dreams with me now."
Then, Miller's characters seem to have an odd, roundabout way of expressing their affections for each other. Another song from the tape has her telling a boyfriend, "You really tried to kill yourself when you were 15/I've always admired that in a Sid Vicious sort of way." She pauses, then slyly adds, "And don't you know I've always liked Sid Vicious." For five dollars, or a respectable article of clothing, a tape can be yours, too.
"In my opinion, I think the tape runs a wide gamut, which is what I wanted," she says. "As a demo, I wanted it to be pretty diverse. With Bob, I didn't have anything to do with the production, unfortunately, and I'm not really all that pleased with it. The producer took it to Boston to mix without me, and that made me very angry. So I wouldn't consider that, in any way, my style--except for the songwriting."
But as wonderful as the tape is, the regular Wednesday night gig at the Dark Room (adjacent to the Green Room) provides the greatest revelation. On this night, Dickinson opens the set alone, performing a few new and old songs. And if his lyrics have always skewed toward the abstract with pop poppins and on his first solo album (the ambitious As an Individualist, to be re-issued on Carpe Diem records within the month), his new material is more concrete--less vague poetry, more definite ideas.
He begins his set with the rousing "King of All That I Need," a scathing and often funny rant against materialism (performed, appropriately, by a man wearing a torn shirt held together with safety pins). "I'm a spoiled brat," Dickinson sings-yells, before describing his fancy car and luxurious home. Most likely the song is about baseball players (Dickinson, a longtime fan, has sworn off the sport in the aftermath of the strike), as it concludes with the damning line, "I have a towering fly ball to catch."
After a few more songs, he asks Miller if she'd like to join him on stage. From her seat, she yells, "If you tune your guitar, honey."
He responds that he likes to play it slightly out of tune, then reconsiders. "You're right, maybe I should tune it." And he does.
When Miller joins Dickinson on stage--bearing an aquamarine Charvel Surfcaster guitar, a nice complement to Dickinson's acoustic model--the two run through a set list consisting of songs both of them have written, plus a few covers thrown in (including two by Buddy Holly).
Together, Miller and Dickinson recall Richard and Linda Thompson or Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris--not so much because they sound like those two legendary duos, but because their voices work so beautifully well together. What made the Thompsons and Parsons/Harris so perfect was the way in which the man's voice often sounded as though it couldn't exist without the woman's; those partnerships achieved a perfect balance--the plain against the pretty, the harsh against the soft, the desperate against the satisfied, the hopeless against the hopeful. Gram Parsons and Richard Thompson had great voices alone, but Emmylou and Linda elevated them to an unreachable place.
And so it is with Miller and Dickinson at various times during their performance, often during the most simple of songs. One, "Won't You Come Walk With Me," is a rather trite romantic invitation--"We could go walking in the moonlight, the starlight," goes the verse, repeated over and over--but it's the kind of song that actually depends upon the cliche (and the naivete). When they sing the words to each other, then with each other, Miller and Dickinson sound so sincere and beautiful together that the words become secondary to the sound--so utterly believable and heartrendingly sincere.
Miller says, only half-facetiously, that the first time she heard Dickinson sing at Dave's Art Pawn Shop, she fell for him; most likely, she figures, it happened the same way for him. As such, the two have been together on and off for almost five years--currently very much on, with Dickinson performing on and producing her new cassette, in addition to these regular gigs at the Dark Room. The two also now share a home here.
"I never get tired of hearing his songs," Miller says, "and I've heard them a lot. But I don't know if he gets tired of hearing my songs. I hope not."
Borders Books & Music's monthly music series, held in conjunction with the Observer, continues July 15 at 5 p.m. with sets from Slobberbone and Funland frontman Peter Schmidt (performing a rare solo acoustic set)...
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