Erin McKeown: Grand opener

Erin McKeown (photo: Robin Sebree)

by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., April 13, 2004) – About 10 years ago, Erin McKeown was visiting her father outside of our nation’s capital. Looking through the newspapers for something to do with him, she saw that Joan Baez was playing in Washington, D.C. She knew he liked Baez, so the two of them went to the show together.

A then-unknown singer-songwriter warmed up the audience for Baez. While most of the people in the crowd were polite while they waited for the headliner, a few, including McKeown, became instant fans of the opening act, who happened to be Dar Williams.

So last month, when McKeown found herself on a string of dates in the awkward position warming up crowds who had paid to hear and see Joan Baez, she held that memory close.

“I went to that concert with my parents and really found some music I liked,” said McKeown, who performs on Saturday night at 8 at the Berkshire Museum, in a recent phone interview.

Not that McKeown doesn’t already have plenty of fans of her own. With just two albums, her debut, “Distillation,” and last year’s terrific “Grand,” both on Signature Sounds, McKeown is already a regular presence on the folk club and festival circuit. The Brown University graduate has performed at the famed Newport Folk Festival, snagged first place in the Providence Phoenix’s “Best Folk Artist” poll, and garnered a Boston Music Award nomination for best new singer-songwriter.

But with the eclectic sound featured on “Grand,” which ranges from jazzy swing to old-time vaudeville to classic pop to Elvis Costello-style new-wave to Radiohead-influenced rock to Ani DiFranco-like punk-folk, McKeown is also breaking out of the folk ghetto and reaching new audiences. She recently vied with the likes of Beyonce, Dido, Missy Elliott and Kylie Minogue for the Best International Female Artist in the Meteor Awards, Ireland’s version of the Grammys. (Beyonce won.) She will be performing alongside the likes of Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, David Byrne, Wilco, The Dead, Patti Smith, Kings of Leon and Primus at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennesse in June. (She will also be closer to our region when she performs at the Iron Horse in Northampton on April 25, at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington on May 30, and at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, N.Y., in late July.)

The songs on “Grand” are loosely tied together by the themes of art, fame and femininity. Judy Garland in particular hovers over the album as an iconic touchstone. She is referred to overtly or covertly in several of the songs, including “Cinematic” and “Vera,” the latter a song about Igor Stravinsky and his wife in Los Angeles in the late-1940s, in which the composer suggests they go see a Garland film as a way of shaking him out of his creative torpor.

McKeown wasn’t particularly obsessed with Garland before making the album. Garland’s influence on the songwriting process for “Grand,” rather, was the result of what McKeown calls a very “mundane” coincidence.

“I spend a lot of time listening to music in the car,” said McKeown, “and I, like most people, like to sing in the car. I remember putting in a Judy Garland CD, and got to know the songs, and I made this observation that the range of her voice is very similar to mine. It’s maybe something that only a professional singer would notice when they’re singing alone in a car. I have a very odd range for a woman, and I don’t always have as much fun singing along because of that.”

The album, produced by David Chalfant (The Nields), includes a slowed-down version of Garland’s song, “Lucky Day,” but otherwise it consists of 13 original songs. A veritable Stevie Wonder, McKeown plays numerous instruments on the recording, including acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, organs, sampler, accordion and percussion.

“I decided three or four years ago that I admired people who played a lot of instruments and could do a lot of different things as far as their skill on the instruments, in pop, folk and jazz,” said McKeown, already familiar to area audiences for performing several solo and band shows and appearances with Voices on the Verge -- four female singer-songwriters in the round -- at Club Helsinki. “So I went to work with that in mind, not afraid to try new instruments and try to bring as many into my music and into my live show.” At the Berkshire Museum, McKeown will perform as a duo with drummer David Berger.

At Brown, McKeown majored in ethnomusicology, although she is somewhat dismissive of her studies’ influence on her music. “I always felt like I got though college by the skin of my teeth,” she said. “It was an easy thing to call what I was interested in. I got exposed to a lot more kinds of music that way. Seeing other instruments played in class was maybe influential in that sense. And it certainly gave me a lot of books.”

For reservations, call 413-443-7171 ext. 10.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 16, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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