A collection of musically themed musings by Brendan Bush in Burlington, VT

Mail: PO Box 1556 | Burlington, VT 05402

Wrapup: Erin McKeown @ Kennedy Center 8/19/2010

Filed Under: Concert Reviews, Guest Post, Live Shows

Written by Aaron

Friday August 20, 2010

Ed. Note: Brendan asked me to fill in for a few a few days. I’m happy to oblige.

A 6 p.m. rock show?  Fine by me.

I moved toward the front of the stage and found an empty chair next to two chatty, much older women.  Why were they here?  Were they unlikely rock fans?  Perhaps they were hoping to hear some lady jazz singer profiled in the patrons’ newsletter.  Folky singer/songwriter enthusiasts?  Maybe that was the case.

Erin McKeown - Hundreds of Lions

Hundreds of Lions

Since this blog typically covers music closer to Burlington, I’ll do a little explaining.  Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center is a short walk from my apartment.  It’s even closer — across the street — from the famed Watergate complex.  Young people live where I live.  Old people live in the Watergate.

So I was sitting next to some Watergate retirees.  Their pre-show banter pegged them as regulars at the Kennedy Center’s daily Millennium Stage shows.  Music I love isn’t often featured at the free performances hosted in this arts palace (later this week in the same series: “Marvin Hamlisch conducts alumni of the D.C. Youth Orchestra!”).  But tonight was different.

At 5:57, the very slight Erin McKeown hustled through the atrium hefting an enormous backpack.  She was on stage a moment later wearing a white shirt and white pants — both rolled and unbuttoned enough to reveal intricate tattoos.  Not the typical Kennedy Center look.

McKeown’s latest album was released last October.  As she tells it, Hundreds of Lions chronicles a relationship from start to finish.  It’s a solid record.  At this abbreviated show, McKeown chose to play what she called a “mini suite” of songs from that batch (“Santa Cruz,” “Put the Fun Back in the Funeral,” “To A Hammer,” “The Rascal,” “The Lions”) along with some older gems and two new songs.  She was alone on stage with an electric guitar, a grand piano, and a cup from Starbucks.  Her voice sounded better than ever.  She rocked.

Erin McKeown’s first proper album, Distillation, popped onto my radar screen nearly a decade ago thanks in large part to WXPN,  Philadelphia’s cooler-then-than-now public radio station.  I’ve seen her plenty of times since 2001.  And I’ve even dragged my parents along.  I think of McKeown as a great rocker with smart lyrics.  Others pigeonhole her as a folk artist.  And she’s released a record of jazz standards.  She’s tough to label.  As McKeown tours relentlessly she promotes herself to that NPR audience that enjoys a little bit of folk, jazz, and just maybe sometimes rock.

She’s a commanding performer on stage.  McKeown can tell quick stories and call attention to particularly witty lines from her own pen.  Tonight she overcame an extremely stiff crowd and managed to look like she enjoyed herself.  “Let it fly, y’all,” she yelled during one brave attempt to garner audience participation.  “I think to sum up the record and certainly this song: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.  Words to live by, kids!”  The ladies in my row exchanged stern looks at that advice.  They whispered disapprovingly.  They should have gone home.

McKeown closed with “You Were Right About Everything” from her 2005 record, We Will Become Like Birds.  The women on my row shuffled out, unmoved.  They were wrong.  This was a brief performance but a real treat.

You can watch video of tonight’s full show on the Kennedy Center’s site. McKeown has announced an upcoming tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Distillation.  She’ll play that complete album before moving on to newer material in several cities (stops include Cambridge, Mass. 9/24, Northampton, Mass. 10/9, New York 10/17, Arlington, Va. 10/23, and Philadelphia 10/24).

Note: All photos are copyright © 2010 Brendan Bush unless otherwise noted. You are free to copy, distribute and transmit them as long as proper attribution is given, in accordance with this Creative Commons policy.

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