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Carpenter doesn't disappoint

Downey Civic Center, Downey, Cal., September 23, 2016

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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Mary Chapin Carpenter mentioned early in her set that she believed this was her first time playing Downey. She was then surprised when many in the audience shouted back that it was also their first show in Downey. She was genuinely surprised.

She shouldn't have been, however, because this small theater, in the equally small city of Downey, doesn't host many Grammy winning artists. She was worth the wait, though, and one hopes this venue hosts more such shows in the future. Few of these performances will be better than Carpenter, however, one of our most consistently thoughtful singer/songwriters. And she didn't disappoint tonight.

The highlight of her hour-and-a-half set was "Oh Rosetta," off the latest "The Things We're Made Of" album. It's a song in which Carpenter has imaginary conversations with influential gospel singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta, which culminates in Carpenter standing outside Carnegie Hall, a venue where Tharpe made some of most important live music, eerily feeling her presence.

One other notable song this night was Carpenter's cover of "Passionate Kisses," written by Lucinda Williams. This song, which is usually hard-charging and loud, was taken at a quietly deliberate pace. It was more a rumination on the desire for love, rather than a demand.

One litmus test of performers is how much care and attention they pay old familiar songs. And when Carpenter got to "This Shirt," an older song that is the object of many memory associations, Carpenter sang it thoughtfully, as if she were introducing a new song the audience.

Carpenter isn't some kind of extravagant cheerleader live. Instead, she's many times as introspective as her literate songs. She draws you into her songs the way a great novelist puts you inside the heads of various characters. And tonight she had us right where she wanted us.

Garrison Starr, a regular Carpenter collaborator opened and also came back to sing backing vocals during the headliner's set. Starr sang highly personal songs, including a few that chronicled her coming out as a lesbian. Starr spoke as frankly as she sang, and sprinkled her patter with many 'f' bombs. One has to wonder if Starr was just a little too comfortable with her choice words.