Shannon McNally inaugurates Club B-10
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., December 8, 2002) -- Singer-songwriter Shannon McNally inaugurated Mass MoCA’s new “Club B-10,” the revamped B-10 Theater, on Saturday night in the first program in MoCA’s winter-spring Alt Cabaret series.
McNally only just released her first album, “Jukebox Sparrows,” earlier this year. But the recording’s blend of moody, catchy melodies, its classic-sounding fusion of pop, country, soul and blues influences, its smooth production and McNally’s infectious voice garnered her debut critical raves and radio play, and saw McNally and her band performing across the country as an opening act for performers including John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson.
At MoCA, McNally appeared solo accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Shed of the full-band trappings and elaborate production of “Jukebox Sparrows,” her songs had to rise or fall solely on the merit of McNally’s own performance. In this case, the pop singer – as good a bet as any to garner a Best New Artist nomination in the upcoming Grammy Awards – had to switch gears and play the role of folk singer.
McNally acquitted herself well in the first of two sets. She is blessed with considerable raw talent, most impressively a tremendously rich and colorful voice. She was a calm if not totally confident presence in a space that -- although large enough to comfortably seat the 200 or so patrons in attendance – invites warmth and intimacy between performer and audience. And for the most part, her well-crafted songs, with their sultry melodies and clever catch-lines, do half the work for her before she even has to try.
But try she did -- sometimes too hard. McNally’s voice is as big as it is gorgeous, and at times it threatened to overwhelm her. A little more dynamic control would have gone a long way. The ballast of a full rock band probably supports the large weight of her loud, almost Janis Joplin-like vocals, but the empty space of just her voice and her timidly strummed acoustic guitar could not bear the weight, and at times her singing was an assault.
But there were plenty of moments of beauty, too, particularly on two of the most idiosyncratic tunes of the first set. One was a jazz song of uncertain province, on which she played a vintage 1920s Gibson acoustic guitar. On this Billie Holiday-style number, McNally revealed herself to be a gifted jazz singer with the ability to hold back as much as to pour it out. She also demonstrated more than adequate competency as a jazz guitarist, a talent that she otherwise kept hidden, as the rest of her playing was limited to idle strumming just hinting at a song’s rhythm or harmonic basis.
The other standout number was her set-closer, a version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Besides being an aptly-timed, well-chosen cover tune (and in spite of forgetting some of the lyrics), McNally displayed a remarkable ability to bring out the song’s inherently pleasant melodic content, and a terrific ability to interpret the song’s political message with her own attitude – not an easy thing for any singer but Dylan himself to do with his most political work.
Otherwise, many of the songs McNally played in her first set suffered from the lack of instrumentation. As written, songs like “Down and Dirty” and “Bolder than Paradise” are big, r&b-style pop songs that just don’t come across successfully as acoustic folk numbers, although “It Could Have Been Me,” a song about the vulnerability of a single woman alone on the road, did work well in this setting (on the album it is recorded in a stripped-down arrangement, too).
McNally worked hard to connect with the audience, talking in between songs in the manner of folksingers, which she presumably doesn’t do when she’s playing rock shows. She could go either way – she could commit herself to trying to inject some intelligence onto the pop music scene, or she could decide her heart is really in the acoustic music sphere. She could even try to defy the odds and attempt to do both simultaneously. In any case, it will be fun to watch her career as she makes her way up to the top, where she is undoubtedly bound.
A few words about the new venue: Club B-10 is a warm, festive space, faintly reminiscent of the Iron Horse Music Hall in its bi-level setup, with coffeehouse-style seating in front of the stage offering the choice of table seating, counterspace, barstools and even some sofas and easy chairs, and with a balcony in the rear. It has the feel of a genuine nightclub within the museum, and it will be very interesting to see how it develops over the course of the winter and spring with the variety of concert, performance and film programming scheduled for the space.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 10, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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