This past Thursday night, Loudon Wainwright paid a visit to the Iron Horse for the best night of music that I’ve had since I arrived in Pioneer Valley back in late June. Only the Ani Difranco and Hot Tuna shows rival what I saw Thursday night. I forgot to bring my glasses to the show, so I was especially glad that I arrived at the Iron Horse early. I was seated very close to the stage.
Loudon was in fine form, but before I write about his performance, there is the small matter of the genius opening act, a little, curly-haired woman named Carsie Blanton. She got on stage at 7:00 sharp and immediately attracted my attention with her poise, her serious expression, and her outfit, which featured a black, knee-length dress and a red top that hugged her curves and showed off a fair amount of cleavage. None of this would matter much to me (I swear) if the performance had fallen flat. But, not only was her voice as sexy as her appearance, but it was also smart, playful, painful, and jaunty. Her guitar-playing was nimble and assured. So, in terms of song-writing talent and lyricism, she resembled the main act. I sense a lot more psychic and spiritual strength in her than in Loudon, though. If she’s been as abused and mistreated as some of her songs suggest, I can understand how that came to be.
The opening song was, I later learned, called “Belle of the Ball,” a statement of purpose pertaining to the mating ritual. If he can’t see that I’m the you-know-what, he can’t be right for me. The hook was the voice, the careful way it cradled the lyrics, and the skillful, jazzy guitar melody. I don’t know exactly how long Carsie Blanton has been doing this, but within 15 seconds of her performance, I was convinced that she was a pro. Nothing that came next made me think anything less. Next came “Buoy” which was a clever series of unfamiliar similes, then “Money in the Bank,” my favorite song of the set, which she introduced as a song that she’d researched by looking up gambling on Wikipedia. Then came the title track to her CD, “Ain’t So Green” and, the most painful song in her set, “Closer to Him.” “Closer to Him” is about the singer’s attraction to angry, abusive men, and the hard lessons learned by acquaintance with them. By the end of her set, I knew that I would be spending money on her CD and on some demos that she mentioned she’d posted on her website….Now, having listened to both demos and the polished CD (from 2005), I think I prefer the demos.
At around 7:45, Loudon Wainwright wandered through the crowded Iron Horse and up on to the stage, to great applause. There was a brief delay as he looked for a place to put his glass of water. First, someone gave him a chair. Then, staff member came up on stage and replaced the chair with a stool. This exchange prompted the performer to laugh and say, “It’s like an Ionesco play—‘The Chair and the Stool!’” From there, he launched into his first song, a charming, upbeat ditty about how much fun it is to cheat on his sweetheart. He played fat chords on the guitar and sang the cheerfully offensive lyrics with a big smile. And away we went.
Like what I remember of the last time I saw Loudon (October of 2001 at the Bottom Line in New York City), this performance was a mixture of old and new material, serious and silly, songs about family and songs about the life of a touring singer-songwriter. His new album is called Recovery (2008) and it consists of rerecorded songs from his first two albums from the early 1970s. He played four or five songs from it, the highlight among them being “Old Friend,” one of the most serious songs I’ve ever heard from him, a song to an old friend about how the friendship has changed: “slap your back I can no longer / I can only shake your hand.” His great autobiographical song, “Westchester County” came second in the set, with its immortal statement of how upper class kids get their kicks: “steal a kiss, cop a feel / off a girl in high heels / we came in our cummerbunds.” Then came a double header of great holiday material, “Thanksgiving” and “Suddenly, It’s Christmas.”
I was impressed by the number of requests he took: “Saw Your Name in the Paper” from the new album, “Red Guitar” on the piano, “White Winos,” “Daddy Take a Nap,” “Daughter,” and maybe one or two others. He announced that the anniversary of his dad’s death was coming up, before performing “A Handful of Dust,” a song his father wrote, and “Surviving Twin,” about his relationship with his father, from the great 2001 album Last Man on Earth. He played two great songs that he wrote for a musical, currently playing in England, about a winning lottery ticket being shared between a black woman and a redneck somewhere in Florida. He played a shattering, painful song about family trauma that was strangely enhanced by the lyrics about his difficulty with playing the piano in any key other than C.
He concluded the performance with a completely straight take on “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas.” I was a bit turned off by that. At the end of the song, he flashed us a big grin and exclaimed, “It’s the new optimism!” It was amusing, I guess, but it still felt like an anticlimactic finish.
I skipped the Chris Smither show Saturday night at the Iron Horse to be with Denise in New York. But this Saturday, I’ll be around to catch The Nields, who putting on a rocking performance at Falcon Ridge this past summer. Expectations are high!