Girls With Guitars

I don’t go to a lot of concerts, so when I do, it’s to see somebody who’s particularly important to me. Thus I’m naturally predisposed to like the show. This, of course, makes it doubly disappointing when I do not. The famous James Taylor debacle of a few years ago is the most recent example. And there was that Electric Light Orchestra show back in the 70s.

So what you’re getting here is not really a review, but just a few thoughts about a good night.

On Friday, Mary Chapin Carpenter played the Barrymore Theater here in Madison. I’ve written of the Barrymore before, which used to be a neighborhood movie theater and is now a ramshackle concert venue with about 800 seats, all of them good. It’s the perfect place for the likes of Carpenter; last time I saw her was at Summerfest in Milwaukee in 2001, on a hot evening in front of a big crowd, many of whom were drunk on Miller Lite and may not have been listening to her. Madison is a perfect place for Carpenter too, an artist of obvious wit and intelligence, the sort of person Madisonians fancy themselves to be.

Madisonians do not fancy themselves to be country music fans generally, but Carpenter moved out of the country ghetto nearly 20 years ago. Her new album, Ashes and Roses, would not be recognized as country by fans of the genre today—it’s an album of thoughtful acoustic songs with “a definite narrative arc,” as she said from the stage, inspired by health problems, the death of her father, and her divorce, all in the last few years. In addition to several songs from the new album, she performed a number of hits from her country chart-topping days, including the Grammy-winning “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “Down at the Twist and Shout,” and “Passionate Kisses.” One of the highlights of the show was “Girls With Guitars,” a song she wrote but has never recorded, which was inspired, she says, by somebody who came up to her after a show during her struggling days and asked if she could really play the guitar around her neck or if it was just a prop.

There was only one moment in the show that came off badly. “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” got a new lyric: the critical lines in the original are “When she was 36 she met him at their door / She said ‘I’m sorry, I don’t love you anymore.'” Carpenter changed it to “She said ‘You can kiss my ass, I don’t love you anymore.'” It got a big response from the crowd, and I understand why she did it, but it didn’t work for me. The original is a song about a marriage that dissolves rather than one that breaks, and they seem to me to be two very different things.

Opening the show was Tift Merritt, a frequent Carpenter tour companion who was pretty much unknown to me. She accompanied herself on guitar and piano and sang in a powerful voice like Emmylou Harris with more wattage. She was so endearing that by the time her part of the show was over, everybody in the theater was in love with her. (Or maybe it was just me.) During intermission, I picked up a copy of her 2004 Grammy-nominated Tambourine. It was nominated in the country category, where it never had a chance and shouldn’t have been. It’s a blue-eyed soul record, and it’s now in heavy rotation at my house. Here’s a full-band performance of “Good Hearted Man,” which is the most country thing on it.

Yeah, I need me some more of that kind of thing, stat.

Top 5: Here’s the Lifeline

Monday over at Echoes in the Wind, whiteray wrote about songs and album he turns to “for comfort or just escape.” Interesting topic, I thought as I read, although I had neither the time nor the inclination to blog about it myself.

Tuesday, every time I opened my e-mail, there was another significant news nugget in it. It wouldn’t necessarily be accurate to call it all bad news—“unsettling” is better. It’s news with the potential to lead to change. Some of it could be bad change, some could be good, but all of it is potentially life-altering, depending on how things turn out.

Wednesday I had an appointment out of the house, a meeting I wasn’t looking forward to. On the way, uninterested in whatever they were talking about on the sports station, I hit the CD player, having forgotten what was in it. It turned out to be several songs from 1976—“Get Closer,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Welcome Back” and others—and I suddenly understood what whiteray had been writing about.  Those songs lightened my load immeasurably. They didn’t fix anything—the meeting didn’t go well and the news remains unsettled—but I found all of it easier to take. And on the ride home, I started percolating some other songs and albums that I’ve turned to for similar comfort or escape over the years. Here are five of ’em, in no particular order:

“Time Passages”/Al Stewart (1978). Not the whole album, but the title song, which promises us that there’s a place we can go where everything that’s wrong will be made right again. “The Sad Café” by the Eagles has a similar effect—which is really what this whole damn blog is all about.

City to City/Gerry Rafferty (1978). “Right Down the Line” ran the charts along with “Time Passages,” and it’s only a small exaggeration to say that the two songs got me through my first semester at college when it looked like nothing else would. But the deeper wisdom in this album took me years to hear—about finding one’s place (“Baker Street,” “The Ark”) or finding it again (“Stealin’ Time”), about the irresistible lure of home (“City to City,” “Home and Dry”), about the need to let go and move on (“Whatever’s Written in Your Heart”).

“Memory Motel”/Rolling Stones (1976). Last October I described this song as being about “a road that never seems to end, one that takes us further and further from the days and the people we remember best.” But “Memory Motel” is also about making the best of whatever road we’re on.

Sleepless/Peter Wolf (2002). I have never cared for the description of rock as “music to kill your parents by.” The best of it actually affirms life in all of its ragged, disorganized, making-it-up-as-you-go-along glory. Sleepless does this by embracing a myriad of influences: rock (the magnificent “Growin’ Pain” and “Run Silent Run Deep”), R&B (“Never Like This Before,” “Homework”), country (“Some Things You Don’t Want to Know” and “Nothing But the Wheel,” which features Mick Jagger and sounds like a Stones outtake, but is in fact a country song through and through), and some profoundly gorgeous pop songs (“Hey Jordan,” “Five o’ Clock Angel”—the warm electric piano that opens the latter is a marvelously comforting sound to me).

Stones in the Road/Mary Chapin Carpenter (1994). I’ve written several times about how the radio talks to us—how certain songs speak as if they were written for us alone. This album is full of ’em—“Why Walk When You Can Fly,” “This Is Love,” and “Jubilee” among them.

What all of these songs and albums have in common is a deep understanding of the patience it takes to live every day. Life is a long haul, and expecting the things we want to come to us right now right now RIGHT NOW is a prescription for frustration. But even when I don’t feel like patience is what I really need, it doesn’t matter, because this music still helps me through. I can hear that these people get it, whatever “it” is. They’ve been there, wherever “there” is, and they know what to say to me right now—which is mostly just to hang on. And I let them say it, over and over and over again. Or as MCC puts it in “This Is Love”:

If you ever need to hear a voice in the middle of the night
When it seems so black outside that you can’t remember light
Ever shone on you or the ones you love in this or another lifetime
And the voice you need to hear is the true and the trusted kind
With a soft, familiar rhythm in these swirling, unsure times
When the waves are lapping in and you’re not sure you can swim
Well here’s the lifeline