Music Review: Lori McKenna at the River Club Music Hall

Saturday night, March 5, marked Lori McKenna’s inaugural performance at the River Club Music Hall, an intimate 300 seat theatre in Scituate Massachusetts.  The perfect venue to showcase her raw sensibilities, and with its ceiling fans and stone fireplace, the River Club is ski chalet meets country roadhouse (and in the old Golden Rooster location). It’s very rare to have such an accommodating venue on the South Shore and my first visit won’t be the last. Plus, It’s an uncommon delight when someone of Lori McKenna’s stature tours near where you live. While on her website in late January, I browsed her tour dates thinking the closet would be Harvard Square or a folksy Boston club. Imagine my surprise when I found the date in Scituate, just 25 minutes from my home in Hingham. After falling in love with Lorraine, I didn’t hesitate to purchase tickets.

McKenna has a natural ease about her suited to smaller venues. When she opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill at the TD Garden in 2007, the enormity of the experience swallowed her whole and poorly showcased her talent. That performance was marred by appalling acoustics that drowned out her vocals. I’m not exaggerating when I say you couldn’t understand a word she was singing. McKenna was loosing herself but smartly found her way back. Her concert Saturday night not only fixed all those problems, but brilliantly showcased one of the best singer/songwriters I’ve heard in quite a long time. When Hill said we were fortunate to have her as a native daughter, she wasn’t kidding.

McKenna often sings about the disillusion of marriage and frequently takes the stance of an unhappy woman. While her songs speak to human experience, the way she spoke of her husband Gene was to see a woman deeply in love with her man. The  stories from her small-town life, like when she admitted to visiting her local Roche Bros supermarket 5-6 times a week, because she can’t seem to remember that Tuesday follows Monday, brought a homegrown authenticity to her performance. She may be a recording artist, but she’s also a wife and mother living as normal a life as you or I.

That homespun wisdom threaded together the whole set. Whether she was singing newer material like “The Luxury of Knowing” and “All I Ever Do” or classics like “Your Next Lover” and “Fireflies,” the audience could feel the emotion pouring out of her. This was never truer than on the heartrending show stopper, “Still Down Here” which also closes her latest album. Backed by only a piano (the one instrument she admitted to not knowing how to play) and Mark Erelli on guitar, she stood at the microphone with clasped hands and gave the song her all, even letting her voice crack as it went up an octave. She prefaced the tune by dedicating it to everyone, making it clear that the most outstanding music really is universal.

The always dazzling “Stealing Kisses,” was the only time in the night McKenna faintly mentioned her connection to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. (Hill herself took the song to #36 in 2006). She mentioned always loving when the audience applauds at the beginning of songs, and urged everyone to do it as she launched into “Kisses.” We were all happy to oblige. It’s funny, it wasn’t until she sang this song at the TD Garden four years ago that I fully grasped its meaning. For some reason, the line “I was stealing kisses from a boy/now I’m begging affection from a man” went over my head. Now that I get that both the boy and the man are the same person, quiet desperation never sounded so good.

Another highlight came when McKenna spoke of her foray into the belly of the beast. She mentioned how she’s tricked well-known songwriters to visit Stoughton and write with her by making them believe her hometown is just like Boston. To get anyone to travel to Massachusetts to write with you is a marvel in itself. She faced an uphill battle yet won everyone over in the process, singling out songwriter Natalie Hemby, who co-wrote “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” with Miranda Lambert and the aforementioned “All I Ever Do” which appears on Lorraine.

The way McKenna spoke of her fellow songwriters including Hemby but also Andrew Dorff, brought a grounding to the evening. She unknowingly transported the audience to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, and made everyone wish they knew Dorff personally. He came off as quite the character, a common visiter in McKenna’s world. She told the story of how he visits her local Panera Bread for a well endowed waitress, and tried to get McKenna to write a song about her entitled, “Cross in the Cleavage.” She said no but urged Dorff to write it himself and get Toby Keith to sing it. After “Get Out of My Car,” Keith will sing anything, so you don’t know how much truth is in that statement.

What I took away from the show wasn’t the authenticity or homespun wisdom, but her natural ease on stage. With her friends and family in the audience, McKenna came off Loretta Lynn-esque – a hard working country gal doing what she loves on a Saturday night. More than a gig, it was a showcase for her wit and charm. Her looseness was quite surprising. After listening to her music I expected McKenna to be serious and almost brooding, yet she was very funny; almost like a very toned down version of Wynonna and Naomi Judd in their early days. McKenna sings about being a witness to your life, yet I felt like I was a witness to a bygone era in music. Nothing about her performance felt rehearsed or forced. Even if she’s been telling the same stories on stage every night, they felt as fresh as if she’d never told them before. McKenna is a treasure and should be treated as such.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about her opening act, Matt Chase, a singer/songwriter based in Boston. While he put in a solid performance, he overstayed his welcome by four songs and let his set get overrun with sameness. Let it be a lesson, and McKenna struggles with this herself from time to time, but singing every song in the same tempo with identical mellow and ease, doesn’t help you form an identity. While he has a distinct tone to his voice, it was all too mellow to make much of an impression. He did have one memorable moment towards the end of his set, though, when he sang a song about divorce entitled “Back My Name.” A country/rocker, I could see Vince Gill recording the tune and working his magic on it.

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