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?