Erin McKeown (Club Helsinki, 7/26/01)
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., 7/27/01) - It shouldn’t be such a big deal that the relatively unknown, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Erin McKeown is brimming over with talent - that compared to many better-known artists in her field, she is an immensely talented songwriter, musician and performer.
These things should be taken for granted at some point - at the level, say, when a performer’s ticket price tops $5, or when a record label provides financial support to a recording artist. But they’re not taken for granted. All too often performers are pushed or invited before they are ready onto a stage or onto the grooves of a CD (does a CD have grooves?), doing a disservice to both the performer and the audience, whose expectations slowly get lowered to the point where they are willing to tolerate and even appreciate mediocrity, or to the point where good intentions eventually count for as much or more than execution.
So when a bombshell of talent like McKeown comes along and blows you away - as she did on Thursday night at Club Helsinki - it’s tempting to declare that you have seen the future of intelligent, acoustic rock music and her name is Erin McKeown. It’s tempting to say that you haven’t been this moved by a performer’s sheer power to move since the first time you saw Jess Klein, or maybe even Ani DiFranco, whom McKeown more than occasionally recalls.
In spite of her slight stature, McKeown was a commanding presence from the moment she took Helsinki’s stage and launched into “The Taste of You,” a lively bit of neo-swing featuring some virtuosic guitar playing that should have John Pizzarelli quaking in his boots.
McKeown’s choice of hollow-body electric guitars gave her songs a jazzy, resonant, timeless flair that she used to her advantage, sprinkling her numbers, both ballads and uptempo rockers with sophisticated jazz chords and quick, functional solos. With sympathetic instrumental support provided by drummer Lorne Entress and bassist/guitarist Dave Chalfant, McKeown seemed naturally confident and at ease on stage without any pretense - two other rare yet ultimately essential ingredients of a successful performance.
McKeown’s highly-caffeinated folk-funk tune, “Queen of Quiet,” went down with a “Tequila”-derived chaser. “Fast As I Can” combined some Mike Doughty-like rap-poetry with some dark riffage that exploded in a Who-like crescendo by way of Ani DiFranco. “Blackbirds” built its groove on some John Lee Hooker-like boogie-rock - she called it “noise folk-rock,” and she even covered Rodgers and Hart’s 1940 standard, “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.” By the time she purveyed the western swing of “Little Cowboy.” the dizzying effect of genre-hopping was downright psychedelic.
In a better world, a thousand Erin McKeown’s would bloom - or at least, you’d have a better chance of catching one on any particular night out. As it stands now, McKeown stands head and shoulders over the vast majority of the field.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 28, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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