By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Showcases material from new album
Mary Chapin Carpenter's music has always alternated between up-tempo, country-laced rock and moving, introspective ballads. Her current release, "The Things That We Are Made Of", clearly falls into the latter camp.
As did her performance Tuesday evening at a near-capacity Revolution Hall.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Carpenter's first release, "Hometown Girl". Over that time, she's racked up five Grammy wins and secured her place in Americana alongside luminaries such as Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.
Perhaps this passage of time has Carpenter feeling reflective. Whatever the reason, her performance Tuesday was a solid relaxed set that felt more like a house concert than a gig in front of 700 people.
For the most part, the relaxed approach worked to good effect in front of a fully seated audience.
Appropriate for the evening's vibe, Carpenter kicked off the set with The Age of Miracles, which starts off with the lines: "The past comes upon you like smoke on the air / You can smell it and find yourself gone."
The song worked exceptionally well with her cut-down approach for the current tour. Joining her for The Age of Miracles were Jon Carroll (piano) and Johnny Duke (guitar). Carpenter played acoustic guitar on all songs but one.
Nate Barnes (drums) and Don Dixon (bass) then came out and joined her for two tracks off the new album: Map of My Heart and Something Tamed Something Wild, which is our current featured video and was one of the highlights of the night.
Touring musicians could learn a great deal from watching Carpenter and her band, especially by listening to what is not there: stage noise. I'm never more disappointed with a live set than when stage noise and loud instruments compete for sonic space with one another. As a starting point, Carpenter and the band all used in-ear monitors, something that cuts down ambient noise tremendously.
Beyond that, however, the drum kit was placed upstage in the stage left corner, with a Plexiglas drum shield placed in front. Dixon's bass cab used a single speaker and Duke seemed to use electronic modeling for his guitar amp. Combined, this approach was used to great effect and allowed each instrument and the vocals to be beautifully layered together rather than mashed up, battling for room in the soundscape.
The entire set benefited greatly from this approach and it worked wonderfully, especially for songs from the new album. In addition to the previous two, she played Livingston, Note on a Windshield, The Things That We Are Made Of, and Oh Rosetta. Oh Rosetta is a touching tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, considered the godmother of rock and roll.
All of these tracks, as well as Stones in the Road (title track of her 1994 number one country album) and This Shirt, worked remarkably well with the stripped down, minimalist approach to the evening.
However, the approach came up a bit short with some of her older, more upbeat material. Shut Up and Kiss Me, Passionate Kisses, and I Feel Lucky were all played at a slower tempo than their album versions, with Carpenter slowing them enough that at times the lyrics were spoken more than sung.
As she launched into these, I kept having the sense that they were going to take off and become more upbeat, but they never got the chance. Guitar changes after each song would have made it difficult to keep an upbeat feel going for consecutive songs at any rate.
The Bug and Down at the Twist and Shout did have more of an upbeat feel, the former kicking off with some huge drums. Down at the Twist and Shout was hands down the best song of the evening, with Carpenter clearly enjoying herself. The song also received the biggest response of the night from the crowd.
Even though a few of the arrnagements didn't work well for me, Tuesday evening was a showcase for what makes Carpenter so great: Lyrically driven songs that resonate deeply within and firmly place her among the top songwriters of her generation.
1. The Age of Miracles
2. Map of My Heart
3. Something Tamed Something Wild
4. Shut Up and Kiss Me
5. Stones in the Road
6. Oh Rosetta
7. Passionate Kisses
8. This Shirt
10. Note on a Windshield
11. I Feel Lucky
12. The Bug
13. Down at the Twist and Shout
14. The Hard Way
15. He Thinks He'll Keep Her
16. The Things That We Are Made Of