Monday, October 13, 2008

Erin McKeown @ The Iron Horse, October 11th, 2008

Erin McKeown played to her home crowd on Saturday night. She sounded wonderful. I sensed that life hasn't been especially kind to her lately; she made a few comments that betrayed a bit of sadness. And she told a gripping story about a recent drive from the Valley to New Orleans through Texas, in which she saw the devastation from the latest hurricane. So much of what Erin sings and plays is wrapped in irony, sarcasm, layers of metaphor, and/or some other kind of linguistic tension that the tone of bewildered disappointment that hung over the performance seemed fitting somehow.

The first half of the set was devoted entirely to new material, first on the guitar, and then a ballad at the piano that was probably the highlight of that part of the performance. She finished recording a new album a few weeks ago, and she played six or seven songs that will appear on it. Based on what I heard, I sense that the new album will be a treat, more like Distillation (2000) or We Will Become Like Birds (2005) than Grand (2003), which still doesn't impress me, its high points notwithstanding. I maintain that Distillation is a work of genius, and at some point I'd like to write an essay entirely about that album and why it's so great, and Sing You Sinners (2007) is the easiest album of hers to listen to. In fact, it's playing as I write this. Anyway, the new material sounded jaunty, fun, and, in a couple of cases, tense in the same way that best of Distillation is tense. One song was about a long car ride with someone she wanted to sleep with. The piano ballad sounded almost like Randy Newman, and she introduced it by claiming that it featured some adult language and themes, before muttering into the microphone: "fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck."

After the new song on the piano, she began dipping back into her catalog for more familiar songs. She began with a drawn-out, elegiac version of "James!" from Grand. Then came "Cou Cou" from Sing You Sinners, a song that she introduced as being "very old." Then the guitar came out, and "A Better Wife," "Cinematic," "Rhode Island is Famous for You," and "La Petite Mort" from Distillation to end the set. For the finale, she had us all standing and chanting "oh, Estelle" during the refrain while shaking our fists in the air. It recalled my first experience with Erin McKeown, back at Falcon Ridge 2000, when she was part of the new artists' showcase. To prepare us for the same song, she had us all raise our fists...before reprimanding us: "right now, I should be looking out into a sea of left hands!"

For her encore, she played two more great songs from Distillation. First came "Blackbirds," on the guitar. Then, after saluting the state of Connecticut's recent move toward modern civilization by recognizing gay marriage, "Daisy and Prudence," on the piano.

I should mention that there was an opening act. Mark Geary is an Irish singer-songwriter who is fond of putting his guitar through electronic loops and playing duets with himself. It's a cool effect. Nothing too special in his songwriting, but it was a pleasant way to start off the night. On my way out of the Iron Horse, he was sitting at the bar. We made brief eye contact before I made my way out into the Northampton night.

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