I don’t go to a lot of concerts, so when I do, it’s to see somebody who’s particularly important to me. Thus I’m naturally predisposed to like the show. This, of course, makes it doubly disappointing when I do not. The famous James Taylor debacle of a few years ago is the most recent example. And there was that Electric Light Orchestra show back in the 70s.
So what you’re getting here is not really a review, but just a few thoughts about a good night.
On Friday, Mary Chapin Carpenter played the Barrymore Theater here in Madison. I’ve written of the Barrymore before, which used to be a neighborhood movie theater and is now a ramshackle concert venue with about 800 seats, all of them good. It’s the perfect place for the likes of Carpenter; last time I saw her was at Summerfest in Milwaukee in 2001, on a hot evening in front of a big crowd, many of whom were drunk on Miller Lite and may not have been listening to her. Madison is a perfect place for Carpenter too, an artist of obvious wit and intelligence, the sort of person Madisonians fancy themselves to be.
Madisonians do not fancy themselves to be country music fans generally, but Carpenter moved out of the country ghetto nearly 20 years ago. Her new album, Ashes and Roses, would not be recognized as country by fans of the genre today—it’s an album of thoughtful acoustic songs with “a definite narrative arc,” as she said from the stage, inspired by health problems, the death of her father, and her divorce, all in the last few years. In addition to several songs from the new album, she performed a number of hits from her country chart-topping days, including the Grammy-winning “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “Down at the Twist and Shout,” and “Passionate Kisses.” One of the highlights of the show was “Girls With Guitars,” a song she wrote but has never recorded, which was inspired, she says, by somebody who came up to her after a show during her struggling days and asked if she could really play the guitar around her neck or if it was just a prop.
There was only one moment in the show that came off badly. “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” got a new lyric: the critical lines in the original are “When she was 36 she met him at their door / She said ‘I’m sorry, I don’t love you anymore.’” Carpenter changed it to “She said ‘You can kiss my ass, I don’t love you anymore.’” It got a big response from the crowd, and I understand why she did it, but it didn’t work for me. The original is a song about a marriage that dissolves rather than one that breaks, and they seem to me to be two very different things.
Opening the show was Tift Merritt, a frequent Carpenter tour companion who was pretty much unknown to me. She accompanied herself on guitar and piano and sang in a powerful voice like Emmylou Harris with more wattage. She was so endearing that by the time her part of the show was over, everybody in the theater was in love with her. (Or maybe it was just me.) During intermission, I picked up a copy of her 2004 Grammy-nominated Tambourine. It was nominated in the country category, where it never had a chance and shouldn’t have been. It’s a blue-eyed soul record, and it’s now in heavy rotation at my house. Here’s a full-band performance of “Good Hearted Man,” which is the most country thing on it.
Yeah, I need me some more of that kind of thing, stat.