"I mean, you get to England, and you expect the bands to be as good as the Beatles, as good as the Kinks, and that's just not the case." Rhett Miller, frontman and songwriter for Dallas' beloved Old 97's, is standing at the bar of a basement nightclub called the Kashmir Club in central London. His eyes are bloodshot, but his posture is perfect as he takes swigs of a beer and holds forth on London's music dilemma. "I mean, back home we all assume that the bands are great over here," Miller continues as he waits to take the stage for the second time this evening. He points to the act currently performing, a dismal amalgam of Bon Jovi and the Proclaimers, and shakes his head. "But when you think about it, this country isn't even as big as Texas."
And so goes the old complaint, one not much registered by standard-issue American music fans but frequently whined about by expats and music critics. This songwriter showcase at the Kashmir Club aptly crystallizes the larger problem and only proves my sinking awareness that, despite both London's pop-as-royalty legacy and its staggering population, its rock-music scene just doesn't, well, rock.
Miller is taking part in a low-key amateur night--one he agreed to on a whim while he's in town visiting his London-based sister. And of the handful of z-league acts on the bill, Miller's talent comes off as clean and powerful as a Nolan Ryan fastball. He doesn't belong here, as his answer to the emcee's questioning reveals once he steps onstage. "How many albums have you cut?" chirps the cheery host. "Uh," Miller responds, pausing to tune his guitar and counting on his fingers. "Six?" The other acts, gathered stage left, gasp. There's nary a released single among them, let alone a multi-album contract with Elektra Records. But that doesn't keep the packed room from treating each performer like an in-house Ray Davies: all eyes glued to the stage, all ears pricked with enthusiasm.
That includes rapt appreciation for a folkie duo scooped from the same molten lead as mid-career Indigo Girls. Or for a twentysomething named Maya, who took the stage with a coke-powdered nose (I saw her emerge from the bathroom wiping, ahem, snow from her nostrils) and tinkled away on her Casio while crooning about the ethereal prince of her dreams. Or the leathery doppelgänger of Nico--that is, if Nico were boringly sane, tritely earnest, and married to a man half her age, who stood three feet away fondling a girl half his age.
The extended bill, aside from Miller, was dank and bottomless, but the underexposed London crowd hardly realized it. Which is how it goes at most of London's more legit rock clubs: There are Blink-182 wannabes, Placebo impersonators, Oasis cover acts, and audiences that jump and shout for all of them as if they're watching modern rock messiahs. To them, it's as if John and Paul, Page and Plant, and Mick and Keef are all onstage at once. I've even caught a band spookily evocative of the horrid L7 (only thankfully, and amusingly, more raunchy) with a cult following to rival that of Gang of Four. Too many people, too little focus, and no quality control. The occasional Super Furry Animal or Jarvis Cocker surfaces, but not nearly as often as Britain's frenzied media would have you believe. And whatever you've heard, Travis and Gomez just aren't that interesting. Trust me.
Forget hoping that the next Jam is playing at the local pub, or the next Blur is four-tracking in the basement of your building; sometimes I wonder why I left home at all. Case in point: About a month ago--when I still hoped to uncover some buried London brilliance, tap into some unnamed scene of British pop genius--I broke with my intrepid exploration and caught the Austin band ...and you will know us by the trail of dead at a North London venue. The band's set (ear-burning, chaotic, sinister, and melodic as ever) was the best thing I'd seen and heard in this town. The group was brazen and perverse and as solid as a brass ball, where the other bands on the bill that night were simpering and clichéd. Trail of dead acted as though it ruled the universe, and for a half-hour it did, as we all imagine the Stones or The Who might have back in '66.
Which pretty much shattered my last bastion of anglophilic music fandom. I realized that weeks of club-going in London hadn't dredged up a single band to rival The Adventures of Jet or Chomsky or Wiring Prank or a dozen other Texas bands that I had eventually taken for granted while living just off Lower Greenville. Thus, I made the 10-minute pilgrimage to the Kashmir Club to see Miller play a few of his newest songs, a salve for the damage done to my ears in the past 10 weeks. So what if I had to sit through an act that insisted on performing an overlong a cappella ditty twice because the shaky singer messed it up the first time around?
It was worth it. Miller, in the midst of writing material to follow up the Old 97's last album, Fight Songs, was in relaxed, gracious form. He played two songs in the evening's first set and two in the second; three of the four tunes were brand-new and spectacular. He wasn't giving out titles, although for his last number he told the story of its inception, which had to do with his seducing a hairdresser. (For the record, Old 97's bassist Murry Hammond, who caught the set via the Kashmir Club's Web site, reports that the set list was as follows: "Jagged"--off Fight Songs--"Haphazardly," "Annette," and "Rollerskate Skinny and The Terrible Twos, Two Years In and It's Time to Choose.") The songs were funny, lyrically more sophisticated than anything he's done before, and all suspended on the most limber of melodies and the most muscular of chord progressions. He strummed it out on his acoustic with the professional enthusiasm of a guy who's done this for 15 years, and he never once patronized the audience--he may as well have been playing to a roomful of label moguls.
Miller's family and friends sat in the back of the room, patiently waiting for his turn. Among the dozen or so in attendance were his sister Christi, an ex-Dentonite, and even Chris Weber, the organizer of the Good/Bad Art Collective's music benefits. Weber lives in Brooklyn now and handles the collective's New York dealings, but he was in London for a few weeks on business, and he, like myself, had decided that the London music scene was more than a bit hollow. Even four songs by Miller in the basement of this amateur-night club would be much, much better than the second-rate Bush he and I caught a few nights before at a famously shabby Brit-pop venue, the Falcon.
Once Miller finished, Weber and I sat in impressed silence for a moment, savoring the echo of songs well written and performed. Yet as Miller thanked the crowd and cleared the stage, another act stepped up to play, and I found myself hugging Christi goodbye and lurching for the exit.
But honestly, I'm not homesick. How could I be? I mean, sitting there with Christi Miller and Chris Weber, listening to an Old 97 try out a few new songs, it almost feels like I never left Texas.