Monday, October 11, 2010

A Weekend @ The Iron Horse: Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, and Erin McKeown

The Iron Horse hosted consecutive evenings of fine singer-songwriters this past weekend. All three are folks I’ve seen live at least once each over the past decade, all are artists I first became acquainted with at folk festivals, and all of them have, at one time or another, had an affiliation with Signature Sounds, the wonderful Valley-based recording label.

Friday night, the husband-wife combo of Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst played around 90 minutes of music together. They shared the stage for most of the evening, with each taking a turn to play a few songs without his/her partner. The feel of the evening was off-the-cuff, casual, improvised. Kris mentioned that her task had been to think of 3 songs she’d wanted to do, a task which she’d failed to accomplish by the time she hit the stage. Having a two-year old child at home probably had something to do with that. Several times, it was mentioned that they had not rehearsed much at all and that, despite their intimate relationship, they rarely had the opportunity to perform together. I’m sure they were referring solely to live performances. No duo can harmonize so beautifully together without spending plenty of time working out the tunes. And I have to believe that, as a happily married couple, there are multiple levels to their harmonies. Which reminds me, I haven’t listened to Buddy and Julie Miller in a long time….

Anyhow, on to the music. I recognized very few of the songs they played, apart from Kris’ “Hummingbird” and Jeffrey’s “Ghost Repeater.” As it turns out, plenty of the songs they played were new songs, as yet unrecorded. It sounds like Jeffrey Foucault in particular has been doing plenty of writing lately. He has a very rich, warm singing voice, which I recall from the one time I’ve seen him live, at the Green River Festival two summers ago. The one CD of his I own, Stripping Cane (2004), didn’t connect with me at first but, after repeated listening, I’ve discovered some really good melodies and writing on it, not only “Northbound 35” (covered by Richard Shindell) but “Cross of Flowers” and “Doubletree.” Kris Delmhorst I remember from the Postcrypt, back in the fall of 2000, and I think she’s been at Falcon Ridge at least one of the times I attended. The two of them played separate sets at Green River in 2009, and I remember preferring hers to his. After consulting my review, I’m also reminded that the band that backed up Jeffrey really rocked out. If you know any of his albums, you know that “rocking out” is not exactly what they do. At any, the quiet, almost staid sound of his (and some of her) recordings was brought to lovely life on Friday night.

What I remember best were the covers they played. There was Simon and Garfunkle’s “Baby Driver,” and, for their encore, Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.” While my companion for the evening, the marvelous Maggie Pesce, was out making a phone call, they played Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles,” a song that I have a fond recollection of having heard at Falcon Ridge 2008, as performed by Jason Spooner and his band. It’s a great one, no doubt.

The crowd was big for that show, but Saturday night’s Erin McKeown concert was sold out. And no wonder: not only does Erin make Northampton her home, but this was part of her special Distillation 10th Anniversary tour. That means that she plays two sets of music on this tour, the first set comprising the entire Distillation album--working her way backwards, starting from “Love in 2 Parts” and ending with “Queen of Quiet”--before a short break. Then, she returns to play requests, along with a couple of new, unrecorded songs. It also means that, while performing the album, she wears the same outfit she wore for the cover photo on the album—-see here.

I’ve said, on a couple of occasions on my old blog (here and here) that Distillation is one of my favorite singer-songwriter albums of the past 10 years or so. I’ve also said that I’d like to write an entire essay about why it’s so great. That hasn’t happened yet. But I’ll say this for now: the writing, singing, arranging, performances, and overall feel of the album mesh in a way that just doesn’t happen very often (at least, not over course of an entire CD worth of music). The “feel” of the album is something truly strange: it’s nervous and vulnerable, while somehow seeming sly and cocky at the same time. There are strange mutterings and whisperings, showtune melodies, folk-pop, and jazz and country songs, with heartbreak that is muted by the music’s sense of fun or ironic twists to the singing or lyrics or both. It does not sound like Ani Difranco. But it sometimes sounds like Randy Newman, and if you know who both of those folks are, then you understand that, in a way, the Newman comparison is a bigger complement.

McKeown’s band for the evening was comprised of Distillation’s producer, the multi-instrumentalist Dave Chalfant alternating between guitars and bass and keyboards, and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch. I’d seen Dave Chalfant wandering around the Iron Horse before the music began, and it made me think that some of the Massachusetts folk music circuit would be hanging around that night. I was right: there was Katrina Nields, there was Dave Olson from Signature Sounds. I overheard Dave greet someone I’d never seen before as Lorne, and I instinctively knew that this was Lorne Entress, drummer for the luminaries of the folkie scene in this part of the world. And I noted that, during Erin’s set, she occasionally shot little looks in particular directions, looks that said “I know you—thanks for coming!”

She hit the stage at a few minutes after 7:00, and launched “Love in 2 Parts” out into the Iron Horse. I hadn’t realized she’d be playing Distillation in reverse, but that was fine by me. It meant that several of the stranger, slower, more emotionally difficult songs from the album would come first. For “How to Open My Heart in 4 Easy Steps,” the harmonist from the album, Katrina Nields, came up onstage to duplicate her harmony part from the recording. After that, Lorne Entress played the drums for one song, “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.” For “The Little Cowboy,” Ben Demerath, the cowboy yodeler, came onstage to recreate his part from the album. And he and Katrina were both onstage to do harmonies for “La Petite Mort.” There was time for plenty of anecdotes and stories, mostly about the recording of the album. She was in college at the time, finishing up her senior year at Brown University. After a Monday-through-Wednesday class schedule, she’d head to Amherst for long weekends at Dave Chalfant’s house to record the album. It was during that time, she noted, that she and Katrina Nields, Dave’s husband, became close friends. This was the luxury of playing a hometown show: all these folks were there to help recreate the album. I felt pretty lucky to be there.

Other notable musical moments….The eeriness of “The Dirt Gardner” was gripping. As she and Dave Chalfant hissed their whispers into their mikes, the drummer was silent, allowing the guitars to curl around the whispers. I’d forgotten how important the harmony part is to “How to Open My Heart in 4 Easy Steps” until hearing Katrina Nields perform it with Erin. In the middle of “Fast as I Can," Erin noted that the bass overdubs sucked on the recording and that they had therefore opted not to reproduce them in concert, a comment which made Dave Chalfant nod and smile. She noted about halfway through the set that “the big guns were coming out,” songs that she had continued to play, with different arrangements, for years after Distillation, even as other songs from the album faded away altogether. But for this tour, she not only was playing the entire album but was reproducing the exact arrangements. That made “The Little Cowboy” a particular treat. I’ll never forget her opening with that one at Southpaw in Brooklyn, many years ago, and playing a punk rock version of it. It was fun, but the original arrangement is priceless. And having Ben Demerath on stage to yodel his part was a lot of fun. She mentioned that “La Petite Mort” is never played in the middle of her sets and that it felt strange not to be playing it at the end of the show. She took care to instruct us not to shout out “oh Estelle!” the first time the refrain came around, so as to be true to the recording. “Didn’t They?” remains one of my favorites, with its muted pain and vulnerability, and “Blackbirds” is another great one, which features her under-appreciated guitar playing. And “Queen of Quiet” rocked. Some of the nervousness you hear on the album, whether simulated or sincere, is gone in performance. But the energy level was so high Saturday night that whatever might have been lost in tone was more than made up for in concert. Really: I got to watch a great singer-songwriter reproduce her first major CD release, an album that is quirky and catchy, eerie, melodious, and strange, not to mention of some sentimental value to me.

After Distillation-in-reverse was over, she took a break and returned for a bunch more songs. After two new ones, she took requests, whispering which ones she’d decided on to her bandmates. There was “White City” and “Aspera” and “You Were Right About Everything” from her wonderful 2005 album, We Will Become Like Birds. There was “Santa Cruz” from her newest album, Hundreds of Lions (2009), which I’ve only heard parts of, but which sounds great. And there was “Cinematic,” “A Better Wife,” “James,” and, for the encore, “Cosmopolitans,” from Grand (2003). That encore was finger-picked on the electric guitar and sounded especially good.

I decided against hanging around to say hi. One of these days, I’d love to get her autograph and find out if she remembers ever meeting me. I was the one and only American in an audience at Café La Java in Paris, about 7 years ago, singing along with all her songs at her first-ever Paris gig. Afterwards I walked up to say hi, but before I could say a word she told me how weird it was to look into a presumable French audience that didn’t know her music and see someone singing along with every single song. Another time….


Anonymous said...

Marc Dalio was the drummer with Erin McKeown...can't speak for the Iron Horse show, but he was amazing at the Portland show.

3shells said...

Yes! Thanks for that. I knew it was Mark something. Should've mentioned the first name in the review.

Matt Winters said...

Great thoughts here, Nick.

I really love your description of Erin's work on Distillation. From just the few lines here, it seems like you have the most important parts of the essay already done.

What a cool line-up of folks joining her: Chalfant, Katryna Nields, Ben Demerath. Ah, Northampton...

However, I must correct you that the greatest harmonies ever on "La Petite Mort" occurred at Falcon Ridge during a break in the evening concert, where they played the song on the speakers, and Sandro and I screamed "Oh Estelle!" at all of the appropriate moments. (We were seated down in the flatland, rather than up higher on the hill, which was a Falcon Ridge oddity for us, as you know. I seem to think that was the same evening -- based on my memory of the seating location -- where Janis Ian turned into the devil, pointed and killed an audience member during "God and the FBI." Which would also mean it was the same evening... Oh, never mind... I could go on...)

3shells said...

Hey, thanks Matt! :-) Thanks for the correction on the harmonies point. Wish I'd been there to hear them.

One of the reasons I haven't written the essay about Distillation yet is that I'm not sure how to write about it. It's a very strange album in a lot of way, with a lot of contradictions sort of blended together. Which sounds like a cliche, I suppose...but it's true! Hearing it live was actually the first time I'd listened to it at all in at least 4 or 5 months. And now I think I might go on an Erin binge....