Enduring talent and great songs
Published in Berkshire Eagle, 4/20/10
Random live pic
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
GREAT BARRINGTON—The not-quite-lush, but sonically reassuring, sheen to which Shawn Colvin's albums frequently return is largely the studio fruit of longtime collaborator John Leventhal. But Colvin succeeds because that reliable, tasteful pop sensibility rests squarely upon the foundation of strong songs.
Those songs come into clearer focus when delivered solo, in an intimate setting, by an empathetic performer who just happens to have a voice that can reach in and tickle your emotional insides. And so, Colvin offered an appreciated glimpse into the emotional core of her work during her show at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center this weekend.
Stripped of ornamentation, “Trouble,” from Colvin’s key, 2006 album A Few Small Repairs, set the tone early; its ratting guitar line assumed a haunting quality while Colvin’s ruminative vocals pulled the listeners deep into her innerspace for a brooding, eerie tour. Later, “Round of Blues” sounded more like a harrowing blues than the country pop of its studio incarnation.
There were few surprises in store for the steadfast fans on hand; musically speaking, the experience was approximately the same as that of listening to her excellent 2009 concert album, simply titled Live. This in-person live experience, of course, included Colvin's between-song banter as well. Though she's reputed to be the type to tell stories onstage, what we heard was just scattershot chatter, the idle observations of a personable performer who feels the urge to talk onstage but, on this night, had nothing in particular to say.
A propos of nothing, Colvin spoke a bit about how she's been listening to lots of early Bob Dylan lately, but the digression did not enhance what followed. She's known to be a fan of Dylan, and in fact played his "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" later in the evening; it would have been illuminating to hear how that artist's work informed her own, or why she chose to cover that particular song.
This was her first performance after a break of about a month, and she dropped a few early clams on guitar, such as during the otherwise gorgeous "These Four Walls." "Polaroids," however, was right on, with the audience delighting to its circular melody enunciated by Colvin's fluttering vocals.
She gained instrumental focus throughout the evening, gearing up to pristine renderings of “Tennessee” and “Steady On.” A gifted interpreter of songs, Colvin unleashed a miraculous re-invention of Gnarls Barkley’s hit “Crazy,” grabbing the song by its neurotically disturbed spine and swinging it about. It became a heartbreaking setpiece, and must have sounded to the newcomer like a lynchpin of Colvin’s own catalog.
The performance this evening likely wasn’t the sharpest, most inspired set Colvin has ever delivered. But, anchored by a roster of great songs and delivered by an enduring talent, it was enough.
Garrison Starr provided a winning opening set of singer-songwriter fare that showcased her genial personality and lovely voice, but was highlighted by the strength of her original material. She self-deprecatingly acknowledged her journeyman status in the music industry, which may be why the generous crowd played along with her awkward plug for a website that apparently sponsors her. On a night that was about the songs, this bit of bill-paying was cheerily accommodated.