Scott Miller & The Commonwealth – Thirsty Hippo (Hattiesburg, MS)
Near the end of Scott Miller & the Commonwealth’s set, a train whistle sounded in the dark of Hattiesburg’s nearby railroad yard. It was a fitting accompaniment for Miller and mates, who appeared in Hattiesburg as part of a three-week whistle-stop tour by train from New Orleans to New York, a rail route known as the Crescent Line.
From late January through mid-February, the band played the “Mule Train” tour, performing in cities along the Crescent route. The Hattiesburg show was the tour’s second stop. Miller & the Commonwealth — multi-instrumentalist Eric Fritsch, bassist Park Chisholm and drummer Shawn McWilliams — bounded through a polished 23-song set that showed no ill effects from what Miller said later would be the “logistical nightmare” of pulling off a train-only tour.
Like the Crescent’s trip from the Mississippi backwoods to the bright lights of New York City, the band traversed a broad musical landscape, covering ground from much of Miller’s two solo albums and his earlier work with the V-Roys, plus a number of covers, including Tom Petty’s “Anything That’s Rock & Roll Is Fine”, Roger Miller’s “Train Of Life”, Nick Lowe’s “(I’m Going To Build A) Jumbo Ark”, and the closing number, the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”, with a new opening salvo: “Everywhere I hear the sound of John Ashcroft marchin’…”
Miller played acoustic and electric guitar in a knock-kneed stance, his eyes closed, often hunching forward like he’d spotted a coin on the floor and couldn’t decide whether to pick it up.
Some of Miller’s material addressed traveling in general or trains in particular — notably “Amtrak Crescent”, the tune from his 2003 disc Upside Downside that largely inspired this tour. Other songs centered on darker themes: disappointment, heartbreak, the folly of war and death (notably “Dear Sarah”, about a forlorn Civil War soldier, and the a cappella hymn “Is There Room On The Cross For Me?”).
Between songs, Miller showed off a coiled intensity and acerbic wit. “Here’s a song about Armageddon,” he announced, introducing “Jumbo Ark”. “I can’t wait ’til it gets here.” Later, commenting on the Amtrak banners on the walls — the rail line has lent sponsorship to the tour — he wondered, “Who would take a chance on such a left-wing son of a bitch?”
Miller and his music go down much easier with the good cheer and buoyancy of the Commonwealth backing him. McWilliams and Chisholm steadily kicked up rhythmic sparks while Fritsch starred on a variety of instruments, from lead electric guitar to mandolin to keyboards. His organ work on “Miracle Man” (from Miller’s 2001 album Thus Always To Tyrants) gave the song a spidery quality that was as menacing as it was danceable.
The Commonwealth’s musicianship is an anomaly in a place like Hattiesburg. Maybe it was the shock of hearing someone of Miller’s stature playing here that kept the crowd of about 40 quiet, almost reverent, throughout the show. But clearly they liked Miller, who seemed to enjoy himself too: “We’re having a pretty good time — who knew?”