Archive for the ‘Concert Reviews’ Category

Dixie Chicks Live: long time gone, but back once again

June 22, 2016

imageThe balance skewed Taking The Long Way-heavy (although “Easy Silence, complete with a lyrical video, and the unexpected and rarely performed “Silent House” were fabulous), which allowed banjos, fiddles and dobros to act as accents opposed to centerpieces for the majority of the evening. But this being a Dixie Chicks show, they honored their past with fiery renditions of “Sin Wagon,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” “Mississippi” and “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Lush renditions of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Landslide” were also excellent, while the latter had a beautiful backdrop containing reflective images of the Chicks’ heads.

The rock theme was matched by the black and white set, minimal yet powerful, which hit you in the face with lights and sound as Dixie Chicks took the stage for the one-two punch of “The Long Way Around” and “Lubbock or Leave It.” They added significant muscle to the uptempos from Home, giving “Truth No. 2” and “Long Time Gone” a charge of energy unmatched by their humble acoustic beginnings.

The show is broken into two separate sections at the conclusion of show highlight “Goodbye Earl,” and is bridged by a black-and-white car chase in which the ladies race to the sounds of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” They returned with the night’s strongest segment, an acoustic set that hinted at their beginnings (“Traveling Shoulder” and “White Trash Wedding”) while nicely showing where they could go with a cover of Beyoncé’s “Daddy’s Lessons,” from her recently released Lemonade. (They excluded their brilliant reading of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” for obvious reasons). They concluded this portion with an instrumental they concocted that had Maines banging a single drum framed in bluegrass beats.

FullSizeRenderThey skewed the presidential race jib-jab style on “Ready To Run,” my favorite moment of the whole show, which ended with red, white and blue confetti festively blanketing the audience. The eluded to Donald Trump just twice more; giving him devil horns during “Goodbye Earl” and when Maines said she’d protect a bug that had flown on stage by ‘building a wall’ around it.

It actually wasn’t Trump, but the recently deceased Prince that dominated the evening. They set the stage for the evening with him singing “Let’s Go Crazy” (after a video about wrongly incrassated inmates, Dixie Chicks trivia questions and a random selections of Maines’ always colorful tweets) and treated the crowd to a stunning cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that brought fourth unforeseen colors in Maines’ voice soaked in a backdrop of his giant purple symbol. They ended the evening with Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” which they dedicated to the Pulse Nightclub victims in Orlando.

This Mansfield, MA stop on their tour was my fourth time seeing Dixie Chicks live. I saw them open for George Strait in 1999 and headline their own Top of The World (2003) and Accidents and Accusations (2006) tours. I was supposed to see them open for Eagles in 2010 at Gillette Stadium, but an unforeseen engagement got in the way. Each show has been dramatically different from the last, providing its own distinct flavors and textures.

While I’ll likely always regard their 2003 outing as their finest, this show wasn’t without considerable charms. The Chicks haven’t lost an ounce of the spunk they’ve cultivated over the past twenty years. They may have been pushing a bit too hard – the show was much louder than it needed to be – but the true essence of Dixie Chicks came through wonderfully. They’ve only gotten better, which is a testament to their incredible prowess. Ten years was a long time, but it was certainly worth the agonizing wait.

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Concert Review: Loretta Lynn in Cohasset, MA

August 27, 2015
Loretta Lynn escorted by her daughter Patsy onstage at the South Shore Music Circus, August 22, 2015

Loretta Lynn escorted by her daughter Patsy onstage at the South Shore Music Circus, August 22, 2015

In the immortal words of the almighty Chris M. Wilcox, we need to revere the living icons of country music and ‘Love ‘em while They’re Here.’ His 2012 piece is a subtle battle cry of sorts, a wake up call to seek out concerts the talent we’re fortunate still has the energy and stamina to traverse the country and put on shows. Wilcox’s article is met with added urgency for the mere fact a good number of the artists he cited have died since it was published.

One legend still going strong, at 83, is Loretta Lynn. I had the good fortune of seeing her live for the first time last Saturday, August 22, at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. I’ve seen many a legend there through the years and have witnessed many incredible evenings of music under their tent. But this may’ve been the most special night of all.

The night began with Lynn’s daughter Patsy taking the stage with some housekeeping and other general announcements. She got the crowd going with talk of an autographed box set and lyric book available at the merchandise booth. Once she was done, Lynn’s band The Coal Miners (which features her son) took the stage for some opening numbers to get the crowd going. They began with a feisty “Mama Tried” and ended with “Good As I Once Was.” The pair is random on paper, but the Toby Keith hit really isn’t terribly far off from the Merle Haggard classic sonically.

I was pleasantly surprised when Patsy returned with her sister Peggy for a couple of tunes. They opened with a contemporary number before closing with the crowd pleasing “Tulsa Time.” I was kind of  remiss they didn’t perform “Nights Like These,” but I was likely the only one in the crowd to distinctly remember their sole “hit” from the late 1990s.

Once Loretta came out to a standing ovation, she literally didn’t let up for just over an hour. A blessing of country music from her era is the length of songs. At about two minutes or so each, you can cram in quite a bit in a short amount of time. And boy did Lynn give us everything she’s got.

I’m not as familiar with everything in her vast catalog, but I was surprised just how many of her hits I was familiar with, at least on some level. Lynn ran through the requisite classics – “Fist City,” “The Pill,” “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin,’” “You’re Lookin’ At Country,” “Blue Kentucky Girl” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough.” Lynn executed each of her iconic songs with precision – no false notes or signs her voice has significantly aged.

The poignant “Dear Uncle Sam,” which she said she wrote at the start of the Vietnam War was an emotional highlight. For a forty-nine year old song, the message in “Dear Uncle Sam” rang loud and clear. Everyone was chocked up when she got to the final verse. It was a lesson that great songs really do stand the test of time.

IMG_5122Lynn didn’t go off a set list, which allowed for audience requests. I hate that distracting option, but it didn’t hinder the flow at all. No matter what we threw at her, she gave all the gusto she had. Her son joined her on “Feelings,” the only one of the duets with Conway Twitty that was performed. Lynn also gave a gorgeous reading of “Love Is The Foundation” and added even more humor to “One’s On The Way” by upping the number of kids in the title (“Four’s on The Way”). I’ve always found that song to be a little cutesy, but it’s one of the most honest portrayals of motherhood in country music history.

The only negative aspect of the evening, and it was very minor, was Lynn’s overall attitude. She seemed a little sad – frustrated when she didn’t feel her voice was making it. Lynn explained to the audience how she’s much better when she’s sung on consecutive nights opposed to coming back after three or so weeks without a performance. Towards the end of the hour she had to rest and her band took over with a couple more songs. Once they made the decision to have Lynn sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” you knew the once-in-a-lifetime night was drawing to a close.

The concert was magnificent. I truly couldn’t have asked for anything more from a woman who’s given so much goodness to the betterment of country music. It would’ve been wonderful to hear her talk more about the individual songs, (she did say no one would probably remember “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” after she performed it), but she chose to fit in as much music as she could instead. There’s no arguing about the gift of hearing great music instead of a lot of talking. She also focused solely on the hits, leaving out tracks from Still Country and Van Lear Rose.

What surprised me, though, was how modern everything sounded. I didn’t feel like I was listening to tracks designed for a 1960s/1970s musical landscape. Lynn’s songs are so expertly composed they transcend decades and trends. No matter what generation you were from, and there were some kids in the audience, you could relate to what Lynn was singing. It’s a good thing, too, because five new albums are coming – Patsy teased them at the start of the night.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to have had this rare chance to see Loretta Lynn live. If she hadn’t come to that venue, I never would’ve sought her out. I urge anyone who’s never been to one of her shows to run if given the chance. Chris M. Wilcox is correct, we really do have to love ‘em while they’re here.

Concert Review: Sara Evans and Kiley Evans at the South Shore Music Circus

September 10, 2014

IMG_3885Sara Evans is an incredible vocalist. That at least was evident when she took the stage August 29 at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. Evans turned in one brilliant performance after another, wrapping her comforting twang around a majority of her most recognizable singles.

She opened the show with “Born To Fly” before treating the audience to a brisk set of her career during the new millennium. This fantastic overview ranged from “Perfect” and “I Keep Looking” to “Real Fine Place To Start” and “As If” with ease. She loaded the set with uptempo tunes, bringing out lesser faire like “Coalmine” and enjoying the audience’s eruption during “Suds In The Bucket,” which followed a brief synopsis of her upbringing on the Missouri farm; a life with three older brothers and four younger sisters.

In the beginning Evans stuck with the music, pausing after a generous strand of songs before engaging the audience. While I normally enjoy banter, Evans has a way of coming off slightly disingenuous, like a performer fulfilling a job, and not a singer giving a whole-hearted performance. This is just Evans’ way; a fact that hasn’t changed in the three years since I last saw her live (and wrote a concert review of her show).

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Concert Review: Little Big Town at the South Shore Music Circus

August 22, 2014

IMG_3747They may be from the Boondocks, But Little Big Town have sailed their Pontoon into a rock and roll Tornado.

If their recent show at the South Shore Music Circus proves anything, it’s that the quartet known for simple backwoods arrangements complimenting their airtight harmonies have morphed into a band solely focused on succeeding in the current “country music” landscape.

They made their way to the rounded stage like rock stars filing into a stadium, Kimberly Schlapman’s head of tight blond curls visible a mile away. Karen Fairchild, modeling denim short-shorts, knee high leather boots, and a gold sparkle jacket launched into pulsating set opener “Leave The Light On,” a track from the band’s upcoming Pain Killer due Oct 21. The band and crowd embraced a little “Day Drinking” shortly thereafter, which worked in the environment despite missing the snare drums utilized in award show performances of the track.

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Concert Review: Jennifer Nettles & Brandy Clark at The South Shore Music Circus

August 15, 2014

IMG_3594The gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar and rolling percussion fill the tent. Most turn a deaf ear to the customary sounds of house music as a concert commences. The lights were low and the stage empty, instruments waiting to be played, microphones eager to be sung into. A baby-voiced vocal adds character to the instrumentation, a singer with a distinctive bite. It’s a forty-one year old classic recording, a composition we’ve all dug into time and again. When the two-and-a-half minute ballad draws to a close, the audience erupts. The band files in and begins.

More light procession fills the tent. The sounds are different this time, subtly so, modernized with handclaps. The singer, with her sandy blonde hair back in a ponytail adorning dark jeans and a white Keith Richards tank under a white vest is handed a guitar. She makes her way to the microphone for a seemingly endless parade of “ohohohohohs” before launching into, “a friend gave me your number…”

The delicate connection between the two songs is missed, if you weren’t aware Jennifer Nettles and Butch Walker wrote “That Girl” as an answer song to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which filled the air before the band took the stage. Little connections like that were the benchmark of the evening, as Nettles gifted the crowed a lengthy set that had the audience in the palm of her hand.

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Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Boston, MA

June 24, 2014

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Concert Review – Dwight Yoakam at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA

July 11, 2013
Dwight at Indian Ranch - June 23, 2013

Dwight at Indian Ranch – June 23, 2013

Ever since the release of 3 Pears last fall and his double sell-out at the Ryman this spring, there’s been a buzz surrounding Dwight Yoakam. Like his seven-year stretch between studio albums of original material, he doesn’t tour with great frequency, so I jumped at the chance to see him live when my godparents scored tickets to a show in our area.

It was a typical day in late June. The mercury was creeping towards 90 degrees with threats of afternoon hail as we made our way to The Country Music Capital of New England (Indian Ranch) in Webster, MA – an hour and a half long drive from our home south of Boston.

Although I’d never been to the venue before, I wasn’t a stranger to the cheap ticket prices (they’ve gone up with the times), non-descript location, and traditional mid-afternoon starting time (all shows are Sundays at 2 p.m.). The venue, essentially a hillbilly campground, was a pleasant surprise – boarded by a picturesque lake – and the bleacher style seating not as uncomfortable as one would assume.

The atmosphere – a crowd of people (many my age or younger) who were all kinds of kinds – was the perfect backdrop for the two and a half hour show. Yoakam, dressed in a Canadian Tuxedo and his signature brown cowboy hat, looked like something from a bygone era while his band mates, dressed in shimmering suit jackets recalled a retro Vegas lounge act primed to croon do-wop anthems. Yoakam has always been an individualist, so this display of eccentricity wasn’t too startling.

He opened with the rousing “Take Hold of My Hand” before going back to 1987 with “Please, Please Baby.” I fully expected the fourteen cuts on 3 Pears to dominate the proceedings, but Yoakam did a wonderful job of mixing new and old giving the enthusiastic crowed a satisfying overview of his career. Fully in keeping with his mantra, Yoakam didn’t play it safe throughout his set and I was stunned at how many of the left of center songs I actually knew.

If you were only familiar with Yoakam’s radio hits, then there were plenty of moments throughout the show that would’ve gone over your head. I was surprised when he dug out three songs, all title tracks of his records, that weren’t singles – 1990’s “If There Was A Way,” 1993’s “This Time,” and 2005’s “Blame The Vein.” He also brought out a single few know, but one I played a lot on my radio show in college, “Close Up The Honky Tonks” from his Dwight Sings Buck album.

Yoakam kept the Buck Owens theme alive throughout his set, even pausing “Turn It Up, Turn It On, Turn Me Loose” just after the line ‘While We’re Dancing to an Old Buck Owens Song’ to bring out a full rendition of “Act Naturally,” before finishing his 1990 hit. Their “Streets of Bakersfield” was done by Yoakam solo, a nice touch, as you can’t replace Owens on the iconic single.

He didn’t converse with the audience too much during his set as he let the music do the talking. Yoakam rolled through most of his trademark songs – from debut single “Honky Tonk Man” and early hits “Guitars Cadillacs” and “Little Sister” to 90s hits “It Only Hurts When I Cry” and “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” He tweaked “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” into a slightly slower honky-tonk ballad, and I enjoyed this arrangement a little more than the hit recording. Easily the most fun (and my favorite) moment of the show was “Little Ways” because Yoakam had the crowed in the palm of his hand with each “You. Got. Your. Little Ways” at the start of every chorus. He closed with “Fast As You,” which was just as fun as when it came out twenty years ago.

There actually weren’t that many new songs in his set – Yoakam only sang four of the tracks from 3 Pears. The esoteric Roger Miller-like “Waterfalls” was my favorite of these moments and a definite crowd pleaser (the couple in front of us even had a toy giraffe in honor of the song). I’m always at a loss for what’s popular, and I miss judged that one.

Sadly, his cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” proved an unofficial theme of the show. As much as I enjoyed the concert (and Yoakam is a great entertainer) the band was too loud and created a melding of sound that equaled noise more than music. Yoakam’s voice is still in fine shape, but it sounded like it was in a vacuum when he’d step up to the microphone. I chalked it up to another chance to utilize the reverb that somewhat overshadowed 3 Pears but it could’ve been the acoustics at the venue.

It didn’t ruin the show, but did damper my enjoyment a bit. Luckily, though, the noise factor didn’t affect “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” as I could still make out the band crooning “always late” throughout the song. The noise factor did make “Ring of Fire” unbearable, but his rockish treatment of the Johnny Cash classic always seemed a bit much anyways. Being a big Yoakam fan I also would’ve liked to hear him stretch his set even further – I was dying to hear him play “Nothing,” “Pocket of a Clown,” and “Thinking About Leaving” – but that’s just me being selfish.

Thankfully Yoakam’s charm shone throughout his set and had me glued to the stage despite the abundance of people watching, an always enjoyable hobby. He may be pushing into his late 50s, but Yoakam still has the swagger of men half his age. His trademark footwork hasn’t succumbed to time nor does he look ridiculous bringing out the same moves that had fans swooning more than thirty years ago. If you ever get a chance to hear Yoakam live I’d highly recommend it, his show is a thoroughly enjoyable experience from one of the best artists to come around in the modern era and a moment you’ll never forget.

Concert Review: Kathy Mattea at Silver Center for the Arts in Plymouth, NH

March 21, 2013

McClisterKM6895Kathy Mattea came ready to give it her all. Amidst a blinding snowstorm, and the after effects of the head cold that had eluded her to three days prior, she took the stage Feb 23 in the teeny 665 seat Hanaway Theatre (located in isolated Plymouth, NH) with just three other musicians, a caravan of guitars, and a message.

Of late Mattea has been outspoken on the subject of coal, or “Black Gold” as she sings in a recent song. Her crusade opened a so-far two-album floodgate, a life-changing detour into the Appalachian Folk songs of her West Virginian heritage and the most fully realized music of her thirty-year recording career. Her otherworldly alto graces the lyrics of Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Garrard with the plainspoken beauty of a woman directly in line with her authentic center.

But even more impressive is Mattea’s ability to blend the “new” with the old, creating a woven tapestry linked by environmental cause, a deep sense of history, and a sharp ear. She opened with the first track on Calling Me Home (“A Far Cry”) before launching into “Lonesome Standard Time,” her #11 peaking single from 1992, without skipping a beat. She then graced the audience with my favorite of her singles, “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thrust),” which was recently reinstated back into her set.

The intermingling of her past hits and newer material took me by surprise. I expected Mattea to focus mainly on the subject of coal, with a dusting of her biggest hits, thus leaving non-signature tunes as distant memories. But instead Mattea covered the hallowed ground between her past and present with the seamless ease of a songstress in tune with every note, paying close attention to every lyric.

Dressed in a mint green blouse, black jacket, and casual leggings, Mattea had the confidence of a seasoned professional but the cool of an everywoman; she was one among equals not a star singing to a crowd. Her greatest virtue was her subtlety, showcased through her candor and humor, on par with that of a next-door neighbor, a friend.

She greeted us like we’ve known her all our lives, commending us “Plymouthians” on our toughness in weather, braving a major snowstorm like a bright sunny day. Later she encouraged communal participation, denouncing those who belittled us for an inability to carry a tune, before having us sing loud and proud on multiple choruses of both “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Come From The Heart.” The latter bonded us as a tight-knit family – she enthusiastically attempted to get us clapping on the offbeat, which wasn’t meant to be. Clapping on all beats didn’t work either so plan B had us singing “You gotta sing like you don’t need the money, love like you’ll never get hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work” at the tops of our lungs.

Further audience participation caused an off-script deviation into “Mary, Did You Know” and a proclamation that it wasn’t included with the $35 ticket price. She rolled with the flow, only grappling with the tune to see if she could reach the high note without her head popping off (she did have a head cold, after all). The song soared, and proved that sick or healthy professionalism wins out every time.

My favorite moment of the night confirmed another of Mattea’s many facets -her shrewd intellect. Her successful blending of old and new cumulated in a shared linkage – most of Mattea’s songs are deeply rooted in various fossil flues, albeit generally indirectly. I’d never viewed her material from such a focal point before, and she gracefully clarified her hypothesis, explaining how she’s singing about the diesel fuel of trains (“Lonesome Standard Time”) and the long hall truckers (“Eighteen Wheels”) to the coal. This led to a fabulous rendition of “455 Rocket” (fossil fuel: gasoline), her 1997 single and final top 20 chart hit. (In another showcase of her clever humor, I loved how she modified the line, “as we skid I thought I heard angles sing (sounded like the Beach Boys)” into a sly commentary on Beyoncé’s recent lip-synching scandal).

Mattea went on to grace us with more stories – how she first played the banjo in college only to pick it up again more recently, and the time she performed in newly restored theatre in Ohio, only to find out the majority of the audience didn’t know whom she was. She was candid on the subject of marriage, mentioning her and Jon’s recent (the prior week) 25-year milestone, gracing us with “Love Chooses You,” a Willow In The Wind album cut, and the song sung at their wedding.

Before “Love At The Five and Dime” she remarked on Nanci Griffith’s writing, likening the second verse to poetry, and shared that her classic “Where’ve You Been” almost wasn’t written, if co-writer Don Henry hadn’t been in the room. The latter came with a tale about a man with Alzheimer’s who’d forgotten his wife, until a visit in which she and their daughter were yelling at each other – and memories came flooding back.

Some of my favorite moments weren’t even the older hits (she also sang “Untold Stories,” another unexpected surprise) but the new material, even more simplistic on stage, than record. The quiet beauty of “Agate Hill” elicited tears, while her effective reading of “West Virginia Mine Disaster” showcased her storytelling prowess. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” was a nice uptempo change of pace, and “Coal Tattoo” really let the band rip.

My other great joy, and the benefits of my front row center seat, was witnessing the nuances of the band in action all evening. Sitting that close, I was able to take in all that was happening on stage and watch the four musicians bring each song to life with the fullness of a full ensemble. The front row seat brought an appreciation to the evening that even two or three rows back would’ve made near impossible.photo copy 2

Seeing Mattea live was one of those musical highlights of life where everything comes together perfectly for a truly outstanding evening. She’s an otherworldly talent who has only aged with sincere grace and humility since her Nashville hit making days. If you’ve never attending one of her shows, or if it’s been a while since your last evening with Mattea, it’s well worth it to catch her when she’s in your area. It’ll likely be one of the best musical nights of your life. That was certainty the case for me.

Concert Review – CMA Songwriters Series at the Royale Boston (Featuring Carrie Underwood)

August 26, 2012

Luke Laird is one of the coolest dudes on earth.

At least that’s the perspective I gleaned from his participation in the CMA Songwriters Series, back for its sophomore outing in Boston, July 31. Laird lacked the I-aim-to-please convention of the other participants, and thus gave the deepest insight into the songs that came from his pen.

Laird peeled his material back to its original form, often exposing the forged purity of country radio. He restored “Hillbilly Bone” to its country-rap beginnings, turning in a far more interesting song than Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins took up the charts in 2009/2010. He also sang the real lyrics to “Pontoon – ” it’s “back this bitch up into the water” not “back this hitch up into the water.”

To an outsider those amendments can seem insignificant; even pointless. But they reveal an authenticity about his writing process; a glimpse into his psyche. Laird is a very provocative writer, an outlander in a world of convention. By night’s end I was longing for the opportunity to jet down to Nashville and spend an afternoon with him.

The whole night was indicative of that feeling, turning songwriters into  stars, and Carrie Underwood into their equal, not a celebrity amongst peons. The round robin style contributed to that, lessening any opportunity to upstage anyone else.

The remarkable fact of the evening, far more noteworthy than a sold-out crowd, was the crop of songs sung, some of the blandest in recent memory, ones often filling up “worst songs of the year” lists on country blogs. But for two hours on a Tuesday evening that hardly mattered, as personality far out shined quality.

The affable Bob DiPiero hosted the evening, keeping the proceedings moving along, scolding a group of talking fans, and giving a shout out to the countless others watching via live stream. As a still relevant member of the 90s guard (and one time husband of Pam Tillis), DiPiero should’ve been the avenue for a trip down memory lane, but instead he chose to focus on his more recent, post millennium compositions (“If You Ever Stop Loving Me,” “Gone”).

DiPiero did turn the clock back once, however, singing a song he wrote about the daughter of his friend who showed up at his house in a red convertible. I was thinking he was going to sing the 1997 Collin Raye smash “Little Red Rodeo,” but instead DiPiero took on “Daddy’s Money” his #1 hit for Ricochet from 1996. I was nervous it wouldn’t go down well (who would know that song?), but it was one of the night’s most well-recieved moments.

The showcase, more panel than fluid concert, went down the line, letting each songwriter take turns on something they wrote. The evening had a wonderfully intimate feel in part because everyone was sitting down and also because of the acoustic guitar backing. DiPiero sat on the far left followed by Laird, Underwood, Hillary Lindsey, and Brett James.

The focus on post-2000 material pandered to the largely newer-country-fan crowd, and it showed in their marked excitement for what was being sung. DiPiero revved the crowd with opener “Southern Voice” (his excuse to write a song with the line “Appalachia Cola”), while Laird had everyone singing along to “Take A Back Road,” the gravel-in-my-travel ode to the cultural differences in upbringings between him and his co-writer Rhett Akins.

After the requisite jokes regarding his longer-than-usual hair moved the spotlight off his music, James, a 90s recording star, got the crowd going with a fine version of his Ashley Monroe co-write “The Truth,”  Jason Aldean’s career highpoint, as well as fine versions of “Mr. Know It All” and the sing-a-long “When The Sun Goes Down.” James was easily the night’s most annoying participant, whither it was the deep gravel of his vocals (blamed on a cold) or his cocky attitude.

As much as the focus shifted to other well-known compositions, the night belonged to Underwood. This meeting of the CMA Songwriters was meant as a showcase for her material, as much as for everyone else’s.

Underwood opened with “So Small,” her first linkage with Laird, and his first #1 as a songwriter. Throughout the night she also rolled through past hits  “Undo It” and “Temporary Home,” all while dressed more causally in pants and a white top, accented with her little-past-shoulder length hair in tight blond curls. She appeared as relaxed as any on stage, an everywoman among her peers.

This ego-less attitude extended to Lindsey who used her spotlight to showcase her connections with Underwood. She spoke lovingly of hoping the recently signed Idol winner would even consider recording one of her songs before launching into “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” the inaugural collaboration between songwriter and singer.

The songs she wrote for, and with Underwood, stole the show. They teamed up twice on Blown Away album cuts – “Do You Think About Me” and “Two Black Cadillacs.” Both proved excellent, and succeeded as pitches to get them released as singles (and in that order). The performance of “Cadillacs,” was a spoiler though, as the stripped down atmosphere is a much better setting for the, as Underwood put it, “sinister” lyrics.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, James took his turn and apologized in advance for, a comical reading of “Cowboy Casanova” that came off like a drunk guy doing grating bar karaoke. It marked the night’s most annoying moment, almost frat like in nature. I’m just not as big a fan of that particular composition as I thought, and after only three years, its proving not to age well.

Of all, Lindsey appeared the most carefree, whimsically seducing the audience with her charisma. Her need to pee turned into a running gag she kept comical, an accentuation of her southern charm and ability to develop a rapport with the audience.

This palpable charm extended to her detours from her connections with Underwood, most notably “American Honey,” her co-write that became a hit for Lady Antebellum. Better than any, the song fits Lindsey’s overall persona like a glove, as she exudes the same innocence projected by the lyrics. Lindsey also sang a new song, one not yet recorded, entitled “Concrete Heart.” If country radio can put aside the frivolous material currently hawking spins, it should be a hit for someone. I look forward to seeing who records it (Underwood, perhaps?).

The night’s musical highlight came with the ridiculously fun “Pontoon,” as Underwood shared an e-mail she wrote to Laird congratulating him  on his next #1. Even better were Underwood’s attempts at helping Laird sing it, blanking on half the bridge before turning out the final “motorboatin'” solo, in her soft girly voice. (Excerpts of it can be heard in the viral video “Pontoon Party.”)

But what I greatly appreciated from the whole evening was the atmosphere. I came away wanting to be friends with all on stage, and I couldn’t believe songwriters (non, apart from James, have released albums) could be so entertaining. But more than that, the acoustic setting reeled in Underwood’s wild abandon, and she was able to sing without dancing around distractedly.

That’s a feat in and of itself and it put the focus back on the music, not Underwood the stage performer (which could use major polishing). Without the loud production everyone could be heard and thus the music could be appreciated. It makes such a difference in a concert when everyone on stage can be heard. And kind of surprisingly, the multiple acoustic guitars sounded so full, you didn’t miss the band. 

 I knew buying tickets, the night had the potential to be a very special gathering, a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a performer at the peak of their abilities in a very rare setting. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, and I came away having my expectations exceeded.

If you ever have the chance to catch one of these gatherings, seize the opportunity with gusto. They happen country wide during the whole year and offer more satisfaction for country fans, than any major Kenny Chesney or Taylor Swift styled tour. At least they did for me anyway.

The CMA Songwriters Series is just another in a long list of genre only happenings, that make me proud to be a country music fan and reinforce my stance, that I’m musically right where I belong.

Concert Review – Miranda Lambert & Pistol Annies at the Bank of America Pavilion

July 29, 2012

Miranda Lambert does whatever she wants.

That much is evident from this second leg of her On Fire tour, which rolled into Boston Friday night (July 27) during a week that saw Lambert perform on Good Morning America and co-host The View.

I’ve been following Lambert’s career for nine years now, ever since she first stepped on the Nashville Star stage in 2003. Her “Greyhound Bound For Nowhere” original song night performance solidified my adoration and I knew, if given the chance, she could be the top female singer in country music.

It was a slow climb, but she made it, even when I had doubts country radio would ever stop giving her a cold shoulder. And judging by the enthusiastic crowd at the show, it seems I’m not the only one to ride on the Miranda train.

The show kicked off with Loretta Lynn speaking via tape, telling the crowd her stance that country music will always be okay as long as Lambert’s around, followed by a fabulous montage of strong women set to Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls).”

Lambert then came out with guns blazing on “Fastest Girl In Town,” which set the tone for the night. Rockers of all shapes and sizes followed as she rolled through “Kerosene” and her charging cover of John Prine’s “That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round.” She then slowed down long enough to perfectly execute “Over You,” which came sans any backstory before revving up again on “Heart Like Mine.”

A fascination for Lady Gaga drove her first interaction with the crowd, and led into a countryfied cover of Gaga’s hit “You and I.” Lambert did an incredible job with the song, as country as any hit last year, and she had enough spunk in her delivery to pull it off.

Probably the most palpable display of Lambert’s angst came with “Baggage Claim,” which she sang in tribute to the end of a long work week. The song came complete with rolling flight tickers on the video wall and roused the audience, who dug into the Beyonce-like groove of the tune.

One of the night’s more bizarre moments came when launching into her all but forgotten “Dead Flowers,” a treat for me (I love the song) but a let down for the audience as the artsy metaphors never really connected with mainstream country fans. Choosing to include it within the set further exemplifies Lambert’s rebel spirit, as most singers would never again touch a single that failed to reach the top 30. But the energy of the song works really well, even if the lyrical content doesn’t quite connect.

Lambert took her first of two breaks half way through the set as stage handlers brought three microphone stands (complete with oval shaped named tags and retro microphones) on the stage. The audience was then greeted to a short video piece on the Pistol Annies, before the trio emerged with “Hell On Heels.”

I was surprised to see the crowd go bonkers for them as their lack of airplay and indie spirit should’ve been a deterrent. The short set was followed by the fabulous “Bad Example” and a cover of Lynn’s “Fist City.” The Lynn cover was obvious, but proved a let down as Angaleena Presley’s thin vocals kept the song from translating to this overtly mainstream crowd. But they came back strong, finishing with the fan favorite, “Takin’ Pills.”

There’s a sense with the Pistol Annies that even fourteen months after their formal debut, they still have to explain themselves and defend their coupling. The gimmicky “Holler, Lone Star, and Hippie Annie” schtick is getting a little old. If they just let the music lead the way, they’d be fine.

But with that aside, they put on a great show. Given their backgrounds and passion for traditional country music, they almost beg to play club shows of their own – something I’d die to see. Presley didn’t shine as bright on the big stage with her voice, but she made up for it with an adorable country charm and square dancing bits that had Lambert declaring “now that’s country!” all the while warming her way into my heart. Ashley Monroe is fabulous in much the same way, but as an adept vocal stylist, she shines brightest for the three of them.

The Pistol Annies set was followed by a detour into straight-up rock and roll, which didn’t sound much different from Lambert’s own material. That may prove a problem for those who want Lambert to stay in her “country lane,” but the energy works well backed with her twangy vocals, and she benefits from avoiding the country hick status made famous by her male counterparts.

That energy drives her cover of Kacey Musgraves’ “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a song begging for release as a single. Lambert followed up with “Famous In A Small Town,” “White Liar,” and “Gunpowder and Lead.”

Lambert referenced her stint co-hosting The View one just one occasion, talking about being in New York City among all the models (and View guest Jessica Alba). This short diversion about diversity transitioned nicely into her song “All Kinds of Kinds.”

The emotional highlight of the evening came through “The House That Built Me,” her signature song. She backed it with personal family photos and images from her childhood that brought new meaning to the lyrics. But it also proved how adapt she is at taking a complete 360 and turning out a vulnerable ballad. Like her fabulous ACM performance from 2009, she just stood there, sang, and delivered.

Lambert closed the set with one encore song, a back-to-my-roots cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Backed solely by an acoustic guitar, she turned in the night’s standout vocal and brought a perfect amount of class to the song. But it also felt a bit contrived. Of all the Patsy Cline songs, you cover “Crazy?” Talk about going with the only song of Cline’s the audience would know. It’s too bad as she should’ve shown imagination by going with “Faded Love” or “Leavin’ On Your Mind.”

Of course it doesn’t excuse the fact covering Cline is a crucifixion to the trailblazers of the genre, following the recent death of Kitty Wells. When the woman who made it possible for you to even stand on the Pavilion stage and call yourself a country singer dies, you pay respects with 1) a mention of her name and 2) a performance of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

But through and through, Lambert does whatever she pleases, no matter who it may piss off. She’s built her career on bucking convention and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. If this performance is any indication, she’ll be a female country leader for many years to come.

The same may also be true for her opening act J.T. Hodges (country’s version of Matt Nathanson), who warmed up the crowd with a gumption rarely seen from newer performers. During his set he rolled through many songs from his self-titled debut, due out Aug 21, including highlights “Leaving Me Later” and “Green Eyes Red Sunglasses.”

He threw in a cover of Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo” for good measure and got the crowd pumping on his infectious debut single “Hunt You Down,” my second favorite single of last year. And even though most of his set was loud, he kept it memorable solely with his attitude.

Hodges knew his mission to wake up the crowd and stopped at nothing to do so. Not only did he mention his admiration for  our “title town” (sports), he also ran through the audience to make sure he got everyone’s attention. He won me over as a fan, I can tell you that.

Concert Review – Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples at the Cape Cod Melody Tent

July 1, 2012

On a crisp and breezy summer night in late June, Bonnie Raitt, still a fine singer at 62, closed the current leg of her tour  in Hyannis, MA at the Cape Cod Melody Tent. Throughout the excellent show, Raitt spent ample time slinking her way through songs both old and new, recognizable hits and ones that should be from her excellent new CD Slipstream.

She kicked off the evening working the crowd in to the feel good groove of “Used To Rule The World,” the opening cut on the new album, before launching into the reggae mood of “Right Down The Line,” her excellent cover of the Gerry Rafferty song.

The night quickly became a showcase for the new music, some of the blueiest of Raitt’s career, and her first new music in seven years. In addition to the opening numbers, Raitt performed a beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles,” Joe Henry’s “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” and “Marriage Made In Hollywood,” co-written by her ex-husband Michael O’Keefe.

The highlight of the new music was “Not Cause I Wanted To,” co-wrriten by country songwriter Al Anderson. A pensive ballad, the crowd became transfixed on Raitt’s emotive vocal. The tasteful and quiet arrangement helped too, as it gave the song appropriate room to breathe. A classic in the making, it was a show-stopping moment, and proof there are artists out there still willing to bring quality songs to their fans.

Raitt also turned back the clock to her iconic classics, turning in fine versions of “Something To Talk About,” “Love’s Sneaking Up On You,” and John Hiatt’s  “Thing Called Love,” complete with her usual energy and gusto. And with the mark of an acute songstress, they all sounded as good as they did more than twenty years ago, if not better. (The only hit she didn’t sing was “Nick of Time”).

Having never seen Raitt live before, I was unaware of her easy going nature and sense of humor. Between songs she spoke lovingly of the memories she has of being a little girl, peaking down the aisles of the very tent she was performing in (although, as she noted, it’s been moved just slightly from its original location).

Raitt came of age in Massachusetts, getting her start as a musician in Cambridge, the city bordering Boston. She didn’t talk about her Cambridge connection, but through memories with her father, her love of Massachusetts became very clear. She was even able to visit Martha’s Vineyard  during this brief stay.

She also made sure to interact with the audience, even remarking at a fan’s sign requesting a couple of songs. She was amazed at this person’s level of Raitt knowledge, requesting two songs she deemed “obscure” (she never said what they were), quipping that she wished she still knew them.

At another point, during the encore, Raitt became somewhat political, taking a stance against the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant (in nearby Plymouth, MA), advocating for it’s permanent closer. A very hot-button issue (the workers have recently been on strike), it got the crowd going and forced security to evict someone. This semi-rant led into her Nick of Time hit “Have A Heart,” and was supposed to infuse the song with added power.

I’m not one for artists using their platform to spiel political discourse, and in the post-Maines era, it’s proven not to be a smart move. But it hardly took away from the  music-centric evening. Raitt often proved a mutual admiration society with her band, some of whom had been with her for more than 20 years.

One of the newest additions is noted keyboardist Mike Finnigan, known for his work with Jimi Hendrix, Manhattan Transfer, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Raitt paused long enough to give Finnigan a solo number, the deepest slice of authentic blues heard all evening.

Moments like this gave Raitt a chance to display her guitar prowess, an underrated talent in the music world. Throughout the evening she switched between many guitars, both acoustic and electric. Her playing abilities were as intoxicating as her singing, and together proved an ultimate package.

The aforementioned encore proved another highlight as Raitt brought out her secret weapon (and only guitar-less number), “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” A song deeply engrained within us, Raitt infused it with new meaning by slowing it down even further, thus letting the emotion sink in. She closed with a spirited Elvis Presley cover.

Staples, the opening act, got the party rolling with her throaty mix of Gospel and southern preaching. Like a female God, she emoted from the deepest fibers of her soul when talking about the Civil Rights Movement and marches from Montgomery to Selma through chants of “I will not turn around!”

Her somewhat lengthy (for this venue, which has a noise curfew) hour long set also included a lovely tribute to Levon Helm and a showcase of her siblings, the Staples Singers (Cleeotha, Pervis, and Yvonne). While not as famous, they proved just as good  and accompanied Mavis all evening.

But the highlight of her set came when Raitt made a surprise appearance, joining Staples on stage for a cover I wasn’t expecting to hear – The Carter Family / Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classic “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Unaware of its connection to the Staples Singers, this came as a shock out of nowhere, yet was one of the night’s most enjoyable moments.

Overall, it was fabulous night of entertainment from two extremely classy individuals who seem better with age.  It also didn’t hurt that the sold out show was filled with music lovers (mostly the Baby Boomer generation), not young adults looking to drink beer and raise a Red Solo Cup. Being surrounded by people who not only appreciated but understood good music turned an ordinary evening into something very special.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – it’s often a curse, growing up with two in the round theaters practically in your backyard. The intimacy of the performances is easily unmatched when placed on bigger stages in the Boston. The closeness between singer and fan can’t be found most other places, and I’m grateful to have grown up with The Cape Cod Melody Tent and South Shore Music Circus playing a critical role in my musical education. And, of course, for making nights like this a reality.

Concert Review – Kelly Clarkson Stronger Tour – Wang Theatre – Jan 26, 2011

January 31, 2012

It seems like Kelly Clarkson is everywhere. She had an Unplugged special on VH1 last November, she sang on the AMA Awards and VH1 Divas Soul, was announced as a mentor on Blake Shelton’s team for The Voice, and she performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. And not to be out done on the biggest night in sports, she’s singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.

I hardly remember a similar media blitz in her ten year career. Clarkson’s mangers and publicity people seem to be working overtime to make sure she has her fill of the spotlight. In between all these events, she’s also touring.

I never knew I wanted to see Clarkson in concert until I saw a notice about her Stronger tour from her Facebook page. I looked over the dates and found she was coming to the Boston Area at the end of Jan. I really wanted to go, but getting tickets proved challenging as they were already on sale and likely sold out. But being persistent paid off as good seats, too good to pass up, became available.

I don’t have a distinct recollection of ever attending a show at The Citi Performing Arts Wang Theater before, so I was really looking forward to the experience. I love the old classy theaters in Boston and have seen many a musical in town. This was my first “rock” concert at such a venue and it worked surprisingly well.

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Concert Review – Sara Evans at the Cape Cod Melody Tent

August 27, 2011

Not since Jennifer Nettles brought her lead-with-passion approach to modern country has a singer enthralled me like Sara Evans did last night at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis, MA. She left her blood and guts on the stage as she powered through massive hit single after massive hit single. Sounding even better live than she could ever come across on record, Evans had me in a trance and didn’t let go until the show ended.

Her ability to gracefully overcome her inability to arrive at the venue on time (her private plane was grounded for two hours in Birmingham, Ala, where she lives) had an impatient audience ready and willing to forgive her and just get on with the show. With her raven locks in a tight pony-tail (the result of not having enough time for hair and makeup), she playfully engaged the crowd and exuded likeability rare among entertainers of her stature.

When the band launched into her opening number, a peculiar thing happened to me. I didn’t recognize the song or even the opening verse as she started singing, yet I knew every word, and obviously knew the song. For some unknown reason, I just couldn’t place it. The song was in fact “As If” the only hit single to stem from her 2007 Greatest Hits package. She followed it up with her top 5 hit “Perfect” and then launched into her signature song “Born to Fly,” which I fully expected her to leave until the encore.

On “Cheatin’” Evans brought the already biting lyrics to new heights. When singing the opening, “you say you’re everyday/is a bad dream that keeps repeating,” she slowed it down even further than on the album track and dug twice as deep with her twang, revealing nuances in her vocal ability I hadn’t heard before. Her band smartly gave her room to breathe during the opening and hinder the audience’s enjoyment of her vocal.

Evans than span her entire career with renditions of “I Keep Looking,” which she dedicated to all the women in the audience, and “Coalmine” which she dedicated to all the men. The country/bluegrass shuffle of “Coalmine” was a welcomed surprise although a tad puzzling. Only a minor hit when released as a single in 2006, it’s easily one of her lesser known songs to anyone who isn’t a diehard fan so I was left wondering about its inclusion in her set, although it made for a very entertaining moment and allowed Evans room to act playful with her band.

Midway though she explained her reasons for retreating from recording over the last few years, her now three-year marriage to football player Jay Barker, and the blending of their families, which together, makes up seven children. She joked that once the reality set in, she booked five years of non-stop touring. This led to the only talk of her new album Stronger and an explanation of her new single, a cover of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” a song she always loved, and wanted to turn into a country hit. Singing the fire out of it, it was difficult to see where the negative single reviews stemmed from. I happen to love this cover of the song, and really dig the vibe she was going for. Hearing the song live was the difference; the album track pails greatly in comparison.

Evans followed-up “My Heart Can’t Tell You No” with her most-recent #1 “A Little Bit Stronger,” a song she found at the end of the recording sessions for Stronger and new she just had to record. It easily got the biggest rise out of the audience and it was clear to me, judging from crowd reaction, why the song became such an anthem.

Following the only talk of her most recent album, Evans told a story about growing up on a working farm in Missouri. She talked about the culture of where she came from, where you’d date boys in pick-up trucks and if the parents disapproved, it only made you love them more. I knew instantly where she was going with this, and I was right. It all led to “Suds In The Bucket,” her 2004 #1 smash.

Songs like “Bucket” and “Coalmine” were moments where Evans and her band could interact playfully. With “Bucket,” each member of her band raised a foot in the air, to signal the whole barefoot aspect of the song. Being at a venue that intimate and sitting so close to the stage, you’re able to enjoy little moments that get lost when an artist is playing for huge crowds.

Just when I thought there wasn’t anything else left to sing, they launched into another #1, “Real Fine Place To Start.” At the beginning of that song, it hit me just how many hit singles she’s had. She’d been on hiatus so long, I’d forgotten about all the great music she’s released over the years.

After “Start” Evans proved a slight benefit to having private plane issues. Instead of leaving the stage and coming back for an encore, she had the audience ask her for one without loosing anymore time. The funny thing is, it was during the “encore” where the night got most interesting.

Evans talked about how she’s always loved Tammy Wynette and when thinking about what classic song to put into her show only one came to mind. I fully expected her to sing “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” a track she contributed to the tribute album to Wynette in 1998. Instead she launched into a perfect cover of “Stand By Your Man.” I loved the classic country vibe and as usual, she sang the fire out of it. Only problem is, I couldn’t get Hillary Clinton’s comment from 60 Minutes out of my head. But of course, that didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the song.

Her second “encore” song was a bluegrass-y cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me.” I love how she made such an recognizable song country. In thinking back, it reminds of something Evans said when Bill Anderson interviewed her on the TNN show Opry Backstage in 1998 – no matter what, everything she sings is going to come out country. In the case, that proved very true.

As a diehard country fan, and a lover of Evans’s music, I had a hard time believing “I Want You To Want Me” was the end of the show. She left the stage, and I fully expected her to come back for one final encore. I didn’t believe the show was over until the lights came on and everyone filed out of the venue. I wanted her to come back because of one thing – Evans didn’t sing her breakthrough hit “No Place That Far!” I couldn’t understand why of all the songs in her catalog she would exclude her first #1, yet she sang a Cheap Trick cover and “Coalmine,” which bombed when it was released to radio.

But that oversight didn’t dampen my experience in the least. I came away from the show in love with Evans all over again. I still can’t believe she hasn’t won a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award yet. The ACM were smart enough to recognize her in 2004, but it’s about time the CMA follow suit. And she’s so much better live than she’ll ever be able to come off on record. If you haven’t seen her, and get a chance to, go. You will not be disappointed.

Her humor, which became overkill at times, was the biggest surprise for me. I’ve said it before in this review, but she really is playful and flirty on stage. I loved how loose she was. The great benefit of a concert at The Melody Tent was how the stage, like sister venue The South Shore Music Circus, spins. Evans made a joke that she had to stay inside the stage in order to keep spinning. Since if you don’t, you end up playing to one section of the audience too much.

Which wasn’t an issue for opening act Jake Hill, a local musician who’s recently gotten exposure from Almost Famous, a new local music show on 95.9 WATD, the radio station I intern at. He was able to play the stage and the crowd. This was my second time to see him perform in this setting, he opened for Huey Lewis and The News last summer.

While he performed a solid set, I wasn’t blown over by his music because it isn’t my style. He isn’t a country singer, but that doesn’t matter. He just isn’t the type of singer I like for long periods of time. But that’s me and no reflection on his set, which was very good.

In a lot of ways he reminded me of both a singer-songwriter  from Texas and Delbert McClinton. That’s the best way I can describe him. Hill’s best song came at the end ofhis set when he covered Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbi McGee.” He did such a great job and even had Kistofferson’s almost-drunken wayward singing abilities down. It was the highlight of his set and a great kickoff to a memorable evening.

Concert Review – Martina McBride at the South Shore Music Circus

August 25, 2011

For the first time in eleven years, Martina McBride held residence at the South Shore Music Circus, an in-the-round concert tent complete with a rotating stage, for two shows Aug 6-7. Judging by the sold out crowd, the fans were as happy to see McBride as she was to be back in Cohasset, Ma. This show marked my annual trip back to the venue (a mere fifteen minutes from my house), and my first time seeing her from front-row seats.

During the set she ran through most of her beloved hits. Sitting so close to the stage, I was privy to her set list, so I knew what she was going to sing before she walked on stage. Neither good nor bad, it took away that element of surprise I often look forward to at a concert. It kind of ruins it for me to know what’s going to be sung in advance, but it didn’t dampen my appreciation for the night.

She opened with a brand-new song, “One Night” which will appear on her upcoming album Eleven. An up-tempo tune, it continued down the path set by “Teenage Daughters” of showing off a fun more relaxed side of the singer. Without skipping a beat she ran through other up-tempo hits including “My Baby Loves Me,” “Wild Angles,” and “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues.” It was nice to see her spanning her whole career and not just her hits post-millennium.

The night’s first ballad was the recently-debated “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” a story about a woman battling cancer. I was most anticipating this song because I wanted to hear for myself if it really was as prodding and lifetime movie-esque as people have made it out to be. Hearing her talk about she knew she had to record the song the moment she heard it, put it in a new light for me. It’ll never be among my favorite of her singles, but it isn’t as god-awful as everyone makes it out to be. As always, she gave it a very passionate performance.

For the remainder of the evening she mixed her biggest hits with well-chosen covers. What struck me about the set was the balance of up-tempos and power ballads. I really enjoyed how she didn’t lean too heavy on one area of her catalog but covered all her bases. Of course, though, it was the ballads that got the strongest reaction from the crowd. She received long standing ovations after performing “Anyway,” “Where Would You Be,” and “A Broken Wing,” which she sang with all the gusto in her body. I enjoyed how she would give the crowd time to applaud before signaling to her band to launch into the next song. Being so close to the stage, you’re able to see, and appreciate, all the little nuances of the performance.

But the highlight of her set was her cover of Kris Kirstofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” She quieted down the arrangement and let the steel guitar player do his magic. As with her studio recording from Timeless, she uses this song as an exercise in restraint, rarely singing above a whisper. I loved hearing how simple the song came off. In giving the song room to breathe, she let the quiet moments shine through.

The other cover, Bill Wither’s 70s classic “Lean On Me” was well-sung and had the crowd singing along, but seemed an odd choice. I loved her take on the song and enjoyed the opening bluesy steel riff. Her steel guitar player seemed to play on and on for well over a minute and a half, whipping the audience into a tizzy.

I love how McBride relinquished the opening verse of the song to her younger brother who’s the lead guitar player in her band. It added another dimension to the night. Of all the songs, “Lean On Me” was easily the one sung along to the most. Everyone knows it from either hearing it on the radio or from their childhoods. I loved she chose to cover the tune, but wondered, if she hadn’t, which of her own hits she would’ve sung instead.

The biggest surprise of the night was the medley of “Love’s The Only House” and “Blessed.” In a reflective sense, those two songs go together really well. You have the social commentary of “House” mixed with the I’m doing alright nature of “Blessed.” Almost like, there’s a lot of downtrodden people in the world but my life is pretty well on track. McBride nicely opened the medley by playing the harmonica bit herself.

Following “House/Blessed” she went on to close the show with “This One’s For The Girls” and “Independence Day.” She sang “Over The Rainbow” as the encore, a cover I’d first heard her sing at the same venue eleven years earlier. It really is true, you can never grow tired of hearing that one.

In the end, it was an excellent show that brought up my appreciation of McBride and her music. I’ve been thinking a lot about her since and am really looking forward to the new album in October. I only wish the acoustics weren’t so loud, but it didn’t dampen my experience in the least.

Following the show, McBride sent out this Tweet: “Tonite’s show in Cohasset was amazing!U guys rocked! Loved it! Now on the bus.Have John and all 3 girls w/me. #3dayvacationofficiallystarted.” I LOVE modern technology!

The biggest surprise of the night was the opening act, Blaine Larsen.

Discovered by Joey + Rory’s Rory Lee Feek when he was just a young teenager, he’s 25 now, Larsen used just a guitar and a stool to  come off extremely likable, and inject more personality into his performance than any other opening act I’ve seen in recent memory.

And while his style is very similar to that of Chris Young, Scotty McCreery, and any other deep voiced male country singer, he was able to distinguish himself from that pack with his mix of both serious and playful songs.

He ran through a few of his singles including “I Don’t Know What She Said” and “Chillin.”  He left not a dry eye in the room with his only top 20 hit “How Do You Get That Lonely,” and played the “songwriter’s version” of George Strait’s “I Gotta Get To You” which he co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale and Jimmy Richie. But it was his excellent cover of Merle Haggard’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” that proved his talent. Anyone who can come up to snuff with a Haggard cover, is worth a lot in my book.

And even though I’m not to familiar with it, I would’ve liked him to sing his debut single, “Back In My High School,” only because it was the song that first got the attention of the industry and allowed “Lonely” to go top 20. But nonetheless, he should be a big star, but given that there’s much competition from others who sing just like him, and the fact he didn’t have American Idol or Nashville Star to gain exposure, that seems unlikely. But that doesn’t diminish his talent.

Hits not withstanding, and if his songwriting career keeps picking up, Larsen proved in one 30 minute set, that he really is going places.

Exuberant and Vegas-like: The US Debut of Kylie Minogue’s “Aphrodite” tour

May 1, 2011


Before Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera brought the outrageous stage show back to mainstream pop, there were the likes of Madonna, Bette Midler, and Cher paving the way. There was also an Australian pop singer making the waves in the late 80s when she shot to number one via a remake of the “The Loco-Motion.” Her name is Kylie Minogue. In the 20 years since, she’s gone to entertain audiences the world over, earn the praise of Simon Cowell, and survive a bout with breast cancer. Like Madonna, Cher, and Midler she gained attention for her myriad of costume changes and stage show. To see Minogue perform isn’t just to watch a concert but to watch a production big enough to sell out Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. She knows how to captivate and hold an audience under her spell.

She’s been touring overseas for the better part of 2011,  and brought her Aphrodite: Les Follies tour tour to America April 29 at the Agganis Arena in Boston. I was honored to be attending her US tour opening because I’d wanted to see Minogue in concert for years. I don’t know where I first came of this, but I’ve always known she puts on more of a show then a concert. And for all the anticipation built up in my head, she didn’t disappoint. The show was everything I expected and unlike anything I’d ever seen.  She didn’t captivate me like Sarah McLachlan, or mesmerize like Sarah Brightman, but it doesn’t mean I liked it any less.

You always know a concert is going to be special when the singer rises up from the stage sitting in a giant gold seashell in the opening number. I’d always heard of grand entrances for concerts but hadn’t ever seen them. She made her presence known, to the delight of her screaming fans. She opened the show with her song “Aphrodite,” which served as the vision for the tour, as well as being the title track to her latest album. I didn’t quite know what that word meant and after educating myself once I got home, the whole night began to make sense. While watching the show, I felt it had an Egyptian feel with the three staircases and giant columns but upon a quick Google search realized it was Greek.

Unlike a lot of acts that have to force themselves to perform, oppose to just sing, Minogue really knew how to use the stage. Each song was choreographed down to the letter and involved another costume change. The visuals were the best part of the whole experience. Each segment of the performance provided another reason for Minogue to make a grand entrance and showcase another outlandish outfit. If she wasn’t being carried on a buggy dragged by hunky men, she was being surrounded by female dancers and giant feathers. Each moment perfectly captured the feeling of the concert. In one segment she came out wearing a short dress and top hat while in another a sparkly dress that could be seen for miles.

My biggest gripe of the night was not knowing any but two of the songs. Through deductive reasoning I was able to figure out the opening number, but beyond that each song was new to me. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it means I don’t have any basis to comment on how the particular stage performance matched the lyrical content of the musical numbers. The two songs I knew were her most recognizable mainstream singles – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and “The Loco-Motion.”  In fact, it was the former that introduced me to her music. That song was so popular, American Idol used it as a group number a few seasons ago on the results show for a “songs from the year you were born” performance week. They all pulled it off. 

But what Minogue does so brilliantly, is make her concert less about the music and more about the theatrics. When the concert was over, I wasn’t thinking about the lyrics as much as how it was presented on stage. I would have to say the two most vivid visuals of the night was the human horse and buggy and during one segment a parade of naked men on the video screens. While I thought the naked men were to satisfy her male fans, it was really a comment on sexuality. In fact, the whole show was an exploration of sex, hence the tour’s title. In many ways, Minogue is akin to a sex kitten, purring her way though the night. While she has a powerful voice, when Minogue sings in her upper register, her voice tends to get squeaky and small; almost orgasmic. It added to the overall effect of the show to be sure.

But what really surprised me was the emphasis put on Minogue’s vocals. I was expecting her to lip-sync her way though the night to make room for dancing and other elements of the show. While I detest anyone who lip-syncs their way though a concert, she actually seemed to be singing live. It must be a generation thing, and more power to her. Most singers today wouldn’t know how to pull it all off “live.” And on that note, I really expected Minogue to do more on stage. More by the way of swinging from the rafters and hightailing it over the audience. The overall show was tamer than I expected it to be even though I loved it just the way it was.

I think I’m so used to the Lady Gaga types and P!nk’s Grammy performance where she was spinning around and spraying the audience. I wanted more along the lines of the latter, and not getting it proved under-whelming. But honestly, where can you go on a Friday night and witness this type of spectacular? Now, I don’t want to take anything away from her because she’s outstanding. You could tell how comfortable she is on stage, which is a testament to how long she’s been in this industry. If she was even the slightest bit nervous it didn’t show at all.

While the overall show was first-rate, the music wasn’t. While I can’t knock any song for being particularly bad, the even tempo grew grating after awhile. Now I know Minogue records dance/pop music, but does every song have to have the drum machine? She didn’t make time for many, if any, quiet moments and that left the songs blending together into a sea of sameness. It was hard, particularly so because I didn’t know them ahead of time, to distinguish between them and thus she didn’t create any musical “moments” on stage I could take away from the evening. Not one song stood out as memorable by itself. It’s okay though because she more than made up for it by the performance.

The real let down of the evening was the poorly advertised opening act. It was a non-discript DJ playing dance/pop for a half hour. Why would the Agganis Arena or even Kylie Minogue’s people let such a boring act open for them? It was so bad, I didn’t even know it was the opening act and thus kept blasting the show for starting a half hour late. It felt more like pre-show entertainment, if it can even be called that, than an opening act.

But looking back over the evening, I’m really glad I went. I got to fulfill a life-long “want” to see Minogue in concert, and for all the faults, which didn’t add up to much, had a great time. She knows how to entertain and captivate an audience and helped to widen my musical comfort zone. While I’m not dying to ever see her again, i would recommend her to anyone who wants to have an experience. Because in the end, Kylie Minogue is an experience unlike most of what’s out there.

Music Review: Lori McKenna at the River Club Music Hall

March 7, 2011

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.

The Musical Education by Rosanne Cash

November 5, 2010

One of the saddest musical truths in the current climate is the quality of the songs being recorded and released. Musical fans of today are used to style outweighing substance in order to make money. The need to be bigger, sell more, and attract as wide a variety of fans as possible has taken its toll. Instead of music that matters we are left with two-bit crap suffocated by radio friendly production sung by singers whose vocals are no more than the product of computer software. Realness in music (all genres not just country) is little more than a distant memory.

We’ve gotten so caught up in the latest fads and media bombardment that we don’t even notice what’s become of music. The public at large is so used to what’s being turned out by the major record labels that I’m afraid most people wouldn’t recognize a well-written song when they hear it. What’s missing are those truly great songwriters who treat music as an art form. The likes of Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran will never be seen again and that is a shame.

I have my grandfather to thank for beating good music into my blood. He taught me the ins and outs of what constitutes quality and exposed my young ears to artists who matter. It was from him that I first was turned on to Kris Kristofferson and his songbook, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and countless others. He got me into country music in a backwards sort of way, Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles are not strict country singers even though both have made their marks on the genre. I remember watching the Statler Brothers’ variety show on TNN with my grandfather when I was a child and viewing Barbara Mandrell’s final concert back in 1997. I didn’t get it at the time; what kid would? I thought the Statler Brothers’ show was boring and unexciting but it gave me a musical education most children of the 90s didn’t get.

Around ten years ago, when my grandfather was cleaning out his house, he wanted to throw out his collection of vinyl records. His saying has always been – “when in doubt, throw it out.” I remember many fights over this and he finally gave in. I am now the owner of his collection. It has nothing in it by way of country music but the rock and roll education it provides is worth so much to me.

For years I’ve been one of the masses, caught up in the music of the time regardless of quality. That is no way to live. Of late I’ve found two country music blogs that I read faithfully. Each offer a critical take on the current country music climate and each ha changed my perceptions of modern country music. They’ve gotten me to think about the music in a different way – less of a fan and more of a critic. This shift in my thinking has altered what records I choose to buy and exposed flaws I never allowed myself to see.

Another cementing of that shift occurred the day before Halloween when I had the pleasure of seeing Rosanne Cash in concert. The event came as a surprise. She was playing in a very small performance hall not too far from my home on Massachusetts’ South Shore. When the article popped into the newspaper I couldn’t not go — what fool would pass up this opportunity?

On tour in support of her just-released memoir and last year’s critically acclaimed The List, Cash sang through her catalog of music and took the audience on a journey exploring not just her personal history but the history of music in general. She sang eight of the songs found on The List, a CD compiled from a list of 100 essential country songs her father gave her at 18. At first I became worried we wouldn’t get to hear songs from her back catalog but she found time to play classics that included “Runaway Train,” “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” and “Seven Year Ache” as well as selected tracks from Black Cadillac and The Wheel.

The centerpiece of the show was the presentation of the music. She was backed solely by her husband, John Leventhal, on guitar. The sparse accompaniment showcased not only Cash’s crystal clear voice but also the lyrics. I may be 22, in my rock concert prime, but to be able to hear a singer and understand what they are singing is a gift. Cash is brilliant for knowing that a little bit goes so much further than walls of sound reverberating off each concertgoer’s ear drums. The mark of astute singers is when they know how best to showcase their voices and songs. Not everyone is meant to sing in an arena or play to 90,000 fans in a football stadium. Some require a quieter listening minus the distraction of everyone standing the whole time. Cash is one of those people.

She reminded me why I love country music to begin with – the rich history and the songs. Country music has produced some of the most well-written songs ever conceived. Truth is hard to convey lyrically but most country songwriters have done it, time and time again. A highlight of the concert came when Cash read a passage from her memoir, Composed, that talked about revisiting an old project she created when she was seven about similes and metaphors. She had written down the metaphor, “A lonely road is a bodyguard.”  Cash took that line and added it to a song she was writing, which ended up as “Sleeping in Paris” from her album The Wheel.

I’m continually amazed at writers who have the gift of contorting language and of putting phrases together that make you think. The songwriters of today have much to learn from people like Cash; most of today’s songs won’t be around even five years from now. Artists should be striving for creating classics as opposed to hits of the moment. That’s where the long careers are.

The other highlight of the night was when Cash talked about racking her brain to figure out what might have been the 101st song on her father’s list. She found a great one…Bobby Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billie Joe.”

A lot of people will write off Cash for the recent comments she made to incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, comments in which she criticized his use of her father’s name as a punch line. I find it sad that comments she makes outweigh respect for her music. People are entitled to believe whatever they want and all she was doing was defending her father’s legacy against someone she felt was pigeonholing him as a Republican. She’s come to her father’s defense before when similar comments were made in 2008. Someone has to uphold his legacy and it might as well be his most famous daughter.

Her standing up for her father’s legacy doesn’t change the fact that Cash is a very gifted songwriter and performer and she put on one heck of a great concert last week.

Lilith Fair: Celebrating Women in Music

August 1, 2010

Yes, I went to Lilith Fair this summer. Last Friday in fact. At the Comcast Center in Mansfield. Critics have written off this once summer staple saying that this isn’t the year to bring back the celebration of women in music. Sure, the ticket prices were through the roof and the multi-talented singers Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones bailed after the cancellation of ten dates at the beginning of July. But I went anyway. I love music and I love women singers.

One would assume that I would hate such a concert. With the lack of twang the assumption is I would be bored. It was the opposite. Despite my upbringing on the likes of George Strait and Reba McEntire, I loved every minute and came away never feeling more alive. I was formally introduced to the singer-songwriter and Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles; whom I had only known previously through her debut single “Love Song.” I now consider myself a fan. Her brand of lyrical pop rivals anything being churned out of Nashville by a female artist.

Her smart songwriting and introspective look on the world won me over. When she prefaced her song “Fairytale” by saying it’s about a princess who come to the realization she doesn’t need a price had me thinking, you go girl. When a woman can announce that they don’t need a man to fulfill them; it’s a turn on to me. She’s a thinking person’s Taylor Swift.

A highlight during her set was the cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” The most recent recipient of the Song of the Year Grammy Award, the song most clearly showcased Bareilles’s playful side and gave her a chance to dance around on stage and let loose. She must be one hell of an actress, because if she wasn’t having fun, then she hid it very well.

Her closing number, “Gravity,” drew me in like nothing else all night. A masterful and powerful song, I couldn’t believe she actually wrote it. Besides being a great singer, she’s one masterful songwriter. In the back of my mind, I knew I’d heard it before and finally figured it out. Choreographer Mia Michaels used it as the backdrop to her masterful addiction routine from Season five of So You Think You Can Dance. She has been nominated for an Emmy for work creating that dance.

While I didn’t get to see the entire eleven act bill; what I did see gave me enough joy to last a lifetime. I only partly understand the failure of this once blockbuster event. According to the New York Times, times have changed. Pop has gone Gaga. I understand this to a degree. Lady Gaga puts on one heck of a stage show but she isn’t deep. She may have songs appropriate for dancing and jigging but not for hours of endless pleasure and methodical thinking. Ticket prices were too high. I’ll give tour promoters that much. But what we did get was well worth it.

Other artists I got to hear for the first time were Cat Power and Tegan and Sara. I enjoyed Cat Power if only for the weirdness in her set. She was nothing short of awful; disengaged with the audience and playing with her bra. A times she would trip as she walked and it was clear by the conversations she would have with her band between songs that nothing was planned or rehearsed. Off the cuff is defiantly a new way to play a set. The people sitting behind me thought she was trippin’ on cocaine. Adding to it all, her hair was dirty and she appeared to have just rolled out of bed.

Now, why would I enjoy such a performance? On other dates, her antics were replaced with the likes of Sheryl Crow and Court Yard Hounds; two acts I would much rather have seen. Of course it goes without mention that I would never have seen her set had Kelly Clarkson and Carly Simon not backed out. But I liked that she gave us something to talk about. In a strange way, I felt like I was transplanted back to one of those 1960s festivals where the acts really were on drugs. The best way I can describe her was if April Ludgate, the character played by the actor Aubrey Plaza on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, were up there. Not only did the two look alike, but they acted alike as well. The similarities were spooky.

A person on Facebook said that during Cat Power’s set, everyone was silent back stage; just watching in awe. It was either the strange antics or maybe it really was the music moving everyone. Art is subjective, a sentiment never more evident than during her set.

Tegan and Sara gave an energetic set to say the least. Their blend of rock infused punk brought the energy back to the main stage after Cat Power’s dreadful set. I really want to say I liked it. I really do. It just isn’t my kind of music. The pounding drum quickly wore thin and left me needing Advil. But I can appreciate what they did do and that was put on a set of fun music. I just wish it didn’t have to rock so hard. Outside of country, I’m more of the light pop / adult contemporary type. Hard rock never set comfortably with me.

Like everyone else, I was ready when Lilith’s resident goddess Sarah McLachlan took to the stage. Opening her set, sitting at the piano, playing her smash hit, “Angel,” hooked the audience right in. Her live vocal on the song surpasses the studio version and takes her voice to places I never thought possible.

From there, McLachlan played through hit after hit. “Building a Mystery,” complete with it’s use of colorful language, “Stupid” and “Worlds on Fire,” from the Afterglow album, and the multi-purposeful “I Will Remember You.”

McLachlan even treated the audience to three songs from her new record, The Laws of Illusion. First up was “Loving You Is Easy,” the album’s first single for which she called “frothy.” Later in the set, she gave us “Forgiveness” and “Illusions of Bliss.”

She even sang what is arguably the most personal song in her back catalog, “Adia.” While a huge hit in the US, one could forgive her for leaving out the four minute and five second apology to her best friend. You see, dated and later married her best friend’s ex-boyfriend. Eleven years and two children later, the couple, he the drummer in her band, are divorced.  No shortage of ugliness there.

I was worried, when looking at the schedule, that a fifty minute set of McLachlan would seem short. Thank goodness it didn’t. She gave a perfect concert easily pleasing every one in attendance. Thinking she had sung it all, I didn’t know what she would do for an encore. When she came back out, she asked the audience if they wanted dessert before launching into “Ice Cream,” a obvious crowd favorite and easily the best dessert I’ve ever had.

The closing number a cover of Patti Smith Group’s, “Because The Night,” brought together the eleven acts who performed at Lilith that day. (Okay, it was only ten since Cat Power didn’t come back out). It was easy to see who was most enjoying the experience and that was Sara Bareilles. She ran out on stage first and made sure to stand next to the headliner. Adorable as anything, Bareilles seemed to be taking in the whole experience and learning from it. In the future, she’s going to be the better artist for it.

In the end, McLachlan said she really needed this summer to remind herself of her purpose. What I didn’t know is I needed it too. Few artists have had as great an effect on me as McLachlan. She drew me in and I sat (or stood) there mesmerized by the power of the music. I didn’t know how engrained she was in my psyche until I saw her live. Her music is something truly special and a gift put out on the world.

It’s a shame that Lilith had to cancel ten dates on the tour this year. I don’t understand how people can be so shallow as to not flock to this concert event. The thought that this kind of lyrical music could have an expiration date is the saddest truth of the year.

I hope this tour continues for years to come. I will be there.