An impromptu decision to ignore my raging head cold and wander out into the chilly Philly streets to see Erin McKeown wound up paying off. This was my first trip to Johnny Brenda’s, a venue I’d been hearing good things about since I hit town back in June, and it’s right on my street, albeit over a mile away. The performance space is upstairs from the bar and small. The stage is big relative to the rest of the area, and there’s a balcony that I could not see much of from my station on the floor, where I leaned against a pillar for the entire evening and stifled my coughing and sneezing. Johnny Brenda’s gets good acts. I had to miss David Wax Museum when they came through town, but this was where they played.
Erin’s opening act was a Canadian singer and guitarist named Jenn Grant. She performed with a drummer, a bassist, and a guy who alternated between steel, keyboards, and guitar (a beautiful cherry-red Epiphone that I wanted to get my hands on). Her band was good. They were clearly supporting her songs, staying out of the way and letting her put the words across. Her voice was a bit too quiet in the mix, though; I couldn’t often make out the lyrics. At the end of her set, the rhythm section departed, leaving her and her keys-man alone on stage for the finale; “a rock song,” as she put. This wound up being “Eye of the Tiger,” which I recognized immediately. At first, I couldn’t tell if she was trying to play it straight. She gave herself away, though, when she hit the refrain and pawed the air at us as she sang the word “tiger.” We all laughed.
Erin McKeown is someone who knows how to simultaneously play it straight and put you on. She’s been making music professionally for around 15 years now, and her album, Manifestra (2013), which I have yet to hear, is full of political songs. I was excited to learn this. Her best albums display not just emotional complexity and a real facility for arranging music, but an ironic wit that, in theory, should serve politically themed songs really well (at least, it seems to work for Randy Newman). Her albums are basically divided into two groups: the ones about herself (Hundreds of Lions, We Will Become Like Birds, Distillation), and the ones about something else (anti-Christmas, American popular song, Judy Garland). The new one appears to be one of the latter ones, and that leaves this particular admirer with a quandary. In principle, I like hearing singer-songwriters get outside themselves a bit. But in practice, the more into herself her gets, the better Erin’s music becomes; Hundreds, Birds, and Distillation are her best. Her Sunday night show leaned heavily on the new album, and the only other songs she performed came from the three great ones. In any event, what makes her best music so great is her ability to straddle the line between sincere emotion and ironic distance. Most performers choose one or the other, and the few who try to split the difference don’t usually succeed the way Erin McKeown does.
Sunday night, she was accompanied by a horn player and a drummer. The drummer in particular was really good. I thought back to Allison Miller, who was playing with her when I saw her at Southpaw, many years ago, and the drummers who played with her during her Distillation 10th anniversary show at the Iron Horse a couple of years ago. Erin likes a good drummer. And this one made his presence felt from the very first song, "Aspera."
After “Aspera,” Erin took us through a bunch of the new songs and told stories about them as she went. A particularly jaunty one, “The Jailer,” was a highlight. She also revealed an unanticipated enthusiasm for the NFL. When an audience member informed her that the Ravens won, she announced it to the crowd, to a smattering of cheers and boos. She remarked that she would never again talk to a Philly crowd about sports. But later on, she did. “I hate the Patriots,” she confided to us, a pretty safe thing to say in Philadelphia. And, at one point, her band left the stage, leaving her to take a couple of crowd requests. “That is the best feeling in the world,” she said, after the calls for different songs filled the air. “Beautiful (I Guess)” was beautiful, performed solo. And she dedicated “The Little Cowboy” to her opening act, after a few false starts that required some guitar retuning.
What else? A handful of songs from Hundreds of Lions—which I rank #2 in the Erin McKeown discography, after the extraordinary Distillation and in front of the superb We Will Become Like Birds—which all sounded great. A little bit of singing along with “We Are More,” from Birds. Some commentary about the US-Mexico border and, in response to an audience question, some insight into what inspires her. Two performances of the new song “Proof,” first done straight and second done backwards. A great instrumental jam, during which Erin sat down next to the drummer and grinned at him as her guitar wove in and out of the percussion.