Erin McKeown: Mad Planet, 2-27-07

Tue Mar 06 2007

Tuesday night at the Mad Planet featured a couple of performers whose fortunes depended on emerging from long shadows. Opener Ethan Keller played a solo set of acoustic and electric funky folk, looping homemade beats underneath his playing, beatboxing and grooving to his carefree tunes…if this sounds like a description of another Keller you’ve heard of, you’re not far off the mark; Ethan needs someone to tell him that he’s about a wig shy of looking like a Keller Williams tribute act. If he truly didn’t borrow his schtick from Williams, he’s going to be really bummed (and a little embarrassed) when he sees his namesake live for the first time. There were a few technological mishaps amidst a lighthearted but overall bland set; he did get brownie points for throwing a McKeown cover in at the end, though. The crowd was patient but anxious for the headliner.

Erin McKeown began her career as your basic Ani DiFranco-style urban folkie. She soon began to branch out into jazz-inflected pop, just as DiFranco had, albeit more swing, less bebop. However, McKeown’s subtlety has always set her apart from her outspoken predecessor, and with her last album of original material, 2005’s We Will Become Like Birds, she seemed to be shedding the last vestiges of folk and forging into actual rock territory…but this tour is in support of 2005’s Sing You Sinners, a collection of pre-World War II standards; go figure. McKeown likes to keep people guessing, and Tuesday’s show displayed this eclecticism to full effect—not always smooth, but energetic as hell.

The set was plagued from the start with equipment problems, most notably what sounded like a persistent short somewhere in the guitar connection, but McKeown didn’t let it bother her. She started the show with a rock’n’swing rip through “Thanks For The Boogie Ride” from her latest album, the band (keyboardist Sam Kassirer and drummer Allison Miller) loose and lively and irony-free. Next came “Paper Moon,” along similar lines, like Buddy Holly vs. Hank Williams, but not quite as Caucasian as that sounds. “To The Stars” showcased some jangly alt-honky-tonk organ set to a mod-rock beat, sort of disjointed but curiously endearing. McKeown then pulled out an as-yet unreleased tune which suggests that her forthcoming album will continue the trend toward more indie-rock stylings. Its newness may have contributed to its shakiness, but it also really needed a solid bass to take it where it was trying to go.

I’d been noticing that her vocal projection was inconsistent, like she was using a borrowed mic or something, but her voice also seemed a bit smokier than usual tonight; generally clear as a bell, it may have been experiencing the strains of a mid-tour run in the chilled Midwest. Whatever the case, the following trio of songs from 2003’s Grand all sounded a bit scratchy compared to the originals, though played with style. “James!” started strong, but the immediacy was gradually siphoned off until the grungy guitar solo that capped it off. “Cinematic” was fairly straightforward, and “The Taste Of You” featured a seductive cocktail-gospel organ solo that brought out the song’s essence. The band followed these with three more uptempo swingers, “Get Happy,” “Mine” and “Sing You Sinners.” This was clearly the most well-rehearsed stuff; it brought to mind a Carl Perkins trio as conducted by Duke Ellington, vivacious and steeped in historic Americana but quirky enough to sound fresh.

The rest of the band took a break as the frontwoman (ostensibly) fielded some requests. First was fan-fave “Queen Of Quiet,” and it felt like McKeown’s voice had finally shaken the cobwebs loose; combined with some groovin’ electric guitar, this was one of the most rousing tunes of the night. “Slung-Lo” was a big singalong, and for “Born To Hum,” the star got her audience to accompany her in three-part hmmm-ony. The band then returned for another brand new tune that was much more successful in the indie-rock vein, moody but not hollow, and more tense than anything else thus far. “White City” amped up that tension with some post-folk-rock dynamic; McKeown’s guitar prowess really shone through without being showy, and the band sounded like a genuine unit for maybe the first time. The set closed with a workout, a blaze through “We Are More” and “I Was A Little Too Lonely,” songs that could sound dated until you realize your brain has just been programmed to expect pop music to be contrived, and this music stems from a time before contrived was the norm. The encore of the nursery-rhyme take-off “Blackbirds” was perfect; its inclusion on 2000’s Distillation was the early example of McKeown’s penchant for updating the archaic, and this performance was riveting, with some crushing guitar work from the leading lady and a backbeat that got the whole room bouncing giddily.

Erin McKeown may be a true pop historian; she brings together disparate eras and elements of music into an amalgam under strict quality control, even if it’s not always cohesive. She has clearly carved out her own niche, rising above any comparisons she had to live down early on in her career. She’s got great dynamic timing that is occasionally underserved by her somewhat ragtag ensemble (usual bassist Todd Sickafoose would have been a great help), but she’s got the confidence of the little-league underdog coach and the charisma to will the group into knocking one out of the park from time to time.

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