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Erin McKeown
April 20, 2007

Written by John Proctor
Photographed by Elana Yakubov




– I thought until about a week before the show that I was going to be seeing the Innocence Mission on this night. When that show was cancelled and replaced with McKeown, it was like I thought I was sitting down to a sirloin steak (which I like), but someone replaced it at the last minute with a porterhouse (which I love).

But still, it just seemed a bad mix – Southpaw, with its open area and loud crowds playing host to a folkie whose best work could be described as jaunty, or important even, but rarely loud, or god forbid, rockin’. Perhaps it was a late-game oversight by Southpaw’s recently-scattershot bookers, but I was gonna take full advantage of it, by god, acoustics be damned.

When I got there the opener John Southworth was halfway through his set, which was just, well, strange. He looked a lot – I mean a lot – like Don’t Look Back-era Donovan, with a low-brimmed black hat tipped over one eye while he sang what sounded kind of like sea shanties, but they were less about the raging storms on the ocean or some wily sirens, and more about his feelings. He sang it all in a boyish high-pitched voice while strumming lazily on what looked and sounded like a toy guitar.

It’s funny – I didn’t really enjoy his performance, but was intrigued enough by his schtick to look him up online over the weekend, and his latest album, The Pillowmaker, isn’t half bad – kind of a mishmash of early Dylan/Donovan, Rubber Soul/Revolver-era Beatles, those songs you hear on old claymation Christmas specials about Rudolph and the Abominable Snowman.

About ten minutes after Southworth finished, the place really filled up – lesbians, middle-agers, middle-aged lesbians – and they were really raising the roof with their controlled voices, constant sighing, and shuffling of feet. I’ve seen McKeown electric, but I’m talking coffeehouse electric, not rock concert electric. Her latest album Sing You Sinners is mostly covers of Vaudeville, public domain, and novelty tunes from the 30s-50s, so while her pedigree is high the volume ain’t. I wondered if this crowd would be able to hear her, much less listen.

When she came out with her band, at first I didn’t recognize her. She had on a YMCA t-shirt and Bill Joe Armstrong’s hair, and immediately rolled into a full-volume version of To the Stars, yelling afterwards, “Brooklyn Dance Party toniiiiiight!” With only a keyboardist and drummer, I wondered where the bass was coming from – it wasn’t until halfway through the show when the band left her onstage to play a couple tunes with just her guitar that I figured out she was pounding out some strong basslines while simultaneously pounding away at the higher end on her Gretsch. I never thought I’d use the word “pound” in the same sentence as Erin McKeown, much less twice. And even the most rhythmically challenged middle-aged man never stopped dancing.

And she really seemed to be having a good time up there, talking to the crowd between songs like we were all friends in her family room rather than spectators in a fairly crowded venue. She told of her friend James who, after McKeown wrote the song for him by the same name about being in tormented love with a straight man, used it to find himself a real boyfriend at a show of hers, and also gave a short, nonforced but accurate history lesson about the World’s Fair in Chicago before launching into White City.

And she knew how to play her cards, holding off on fan favorite Blackbirds until a planned encore, during which she invited “Melody from MySpace” onstage with fiddle in hand to join in, after Melody had contacted her earlier that week with said request. Who does that at Southpaw anymore?


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