Jo Miller and the Burly Roughnecks
Thurs Dec 20 at the Tractor Tavern.

Several months back, One-Night Stand saw a most unusual performer at Sit & Spin, named Nova Karina Devonie. Devonie was goofy, and strangely intelligent, and she played the accordion with no accompaniment but her own ringing voice. I was impressed by her immense talent, but shuddered when she sang a regrettable song about a friend who was proud of his three ultra-long nose hairs. There were other moments in her set like that as well--moments of sheer, unadulterated whimsy--and, frankly, One-Night Stand never knows what to make of whimsy.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw Devonie milling about the Tractor Tavern just prior to this past Thursday night's opening set by Jo Miller and the Burly Roughnecks. I knew from the moment I saw her, chipper and decked out in a Santa hat, that Devonie had to be a Roughneck. I began thinking that my review of her solo show months back was harsh. Surely it's defensible to be harsh in a live show review, but to follow a performer around her own city and consistently hack at her performances--well, that's just being a dickhead.

The good news is, I didn't have to be a dickhead. I may not be the biggest hillbilly Western-swing fan in the known universe, but I adored Jo Miller and the Burly Roughnecks.

And the better news is, Devonie was magnificent in this context. Her accordion playing was gorgeous, rounding out the band's rollicking down-tempo rockabilly sound, thickening its texture and making it sparkle. Devonie smiled, danced, and sang seamless harmonies with Miller and guitarist David Keenan. She even took her turn on lead vocals, displaying her vivid prowess with lyrical turns like "You should be labeled with a skull and crossbones/ You're a jinx to my soul."

But this was definitely Jo Miller's band, and while the two women complement each other wonderfully onstage, they are nothing alike. Where Devonie is eccentric, Miller is controlled and grounded. The frontwoman's voice is strong, and she uses it deliberately: Every note, flutter, and Bill Haley hiccup is no doubt relentlessly practiced. One imagines that every time Jo Miller performs a song, it sounds exactly as it did the last time she performed it. While some would take that to be a criticism, it's actually impressive to see a band with an identity this clear and confident. Miller is costumed with an androgynous, Elvis-style look, and she is supported by a flawless group of musicians: Both Keenan and upright-bass player Cletus Kaiser are strong players who solo wonderfully, and enjoy themselves when doing so. I imagine this band is perfect for festivals, fairgrounds, and hillbilly bars or West Texas dance halls, where bands aren't concerned so much with being superstars as they are with getting people onto the dance floor--old, dusty places full of actual roughnecks, who wouldn't give a rat's ass about the musicians' individual identities.

Miller seems keen on this notion. Her primary concern during the entire show was getting the mellow crowd to stand up and move. And as Miller was singing "My baby bought a gun and it shoots real good," One-Night Stand marveled at the 20-or-so dancers who'd been coaxed out onto the floor. People moved gently through swing-dancing's lovely, traditional steps, each person smiling, happily won over by a strong, seasoned player and her sweet group of burly professionals.