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

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).

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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.

Wrapup: An Horse & Kaki King @ Higher Ground 4/21/2010

Filed Under: Concert Reviews, Live Shows, New Releases
Written by Brendan
Thursday April 22, 2010

I’m definitely a sucker for advertising and the power of suggestion. So when I saw Higher Ground‘s facebook post about Kaki King and An Horse playing yesterday, I figured why not. I checked them both out on myspace and both had songs that I liked, and it was a bonus that the show started at 7:30 (what’s with Monkey House shows starting so late? I love music, but I’m getting old, and I love my sleep almost as much…).

An Horse was a song or two into their set when I arrived in the Showcase Lounge. There was a decent crowd for a Wednesday night show, and it was pretty diverse (Bassnectar was playing in the Ballroom and sold it out). Apparently Kaki King doesn’t attract the same audience that Erin McKeown does, which is what I was half-expecting (I was one of maybe 5 men at the last McKeown show at HG).

An Horse @ Higher Ground - Burlington, VT

Anyhow, An Horse is a two-person Australian sound machine (Kate Cooper on guitar & vocals, Damon Cox on drums & vocals). They showed flashes of Black Keys, leaving me looking around to see if any other instruments were being played offstage somewhere. Damon was at times a whirlwind, reminding me a bit of Paul Banwatt from Rural Alberta Advantage (who is a freaking maniac with drumsticks). His vocals were also a great addition to the band’s sound.

Kate Cooper’s dry Australian humor and stage banter made her all that more engaging. She is clearly bucking the increasing trend of homogenized/Americanized accents, creating a very unique sound with a fairly heavy Australian accent (“I” sounds like “oi” etc). She has a great singing voice and has written some compelling lyrics.

I love An Horse, and will definitely make it a point to see them again (hopefully headlining so I can hear more). Any two person band that makes that much sound and makes it sound so good is always a big draw.

On to Kaki King, who is as good on the guitar as people say she is. The photo above has her using a technique of slapping, plucking and thumping that I’ve never seen before. She also had some witty stage banter, and was on a mission to not allow her friend who was there taking photos to get a good shot (she kept sticking out her tongue or making ugly faces when the camera was in her face). But I just couldn’t get into her songs. Each time a new song started out I felt like I’d really be into it, but 30 seconds or so in, they all seemed to lose their muster.

I think that maybe an additional vocalist might help beef up what I think was the major factor in my disappointment, which was Kaki’s vocals. It’s not that she’s a bad singer – not at all – but the quality of her vocals just don’t match up with the quality of the accompanying music. I kept thinking that she’d make one hell of a lead guitarist and backup vocalist in someone else’s band (which is why I’m really excited about the record I bought – more below).

I also couldn’t get past whatever plastic newfangled wind instrument was being played along with the drums and guitar. It might be that the sound mix was off, but I didn’t feel like it was actually making any noise. It also made the guy playing it look like he was just writhing around on stage smoking out of some new-age bong. He had a trumpet on the ground next to him, and since I left early, I missed him playing it, but I just kept thinking how much better it would have been if he’d been playing it all along…

Kaki King @ Higher Ground - Burlington, VT

On my way out, I stopped by the merch table and added 3 news albums to this week’s music purchases: “Rearrange Beds” and “Beds Rearranged” EP from An Horse and “Black Pear Tree” EP on vinyl from The Mountain Goats and Kaki King. Both An Horse releases are wonderful, and I highly recommend their LP. I haven’t listen to “Black Pear Tree” yet, but I’m definitely brimming with anticipation at what has the potential to be an amazing collaboration.

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.