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Voice not quite intact, McKenna comes home again

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., December 17, 2017

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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If it's December, it's time for Lori McKenna to return to one of her long-time Boston-area haunts, the venerable Club Passim. McKenna, who has long had a career as a recording artist and performer, has been better known for her songwriting in recent years.

That's not a surprise when the likes of Tim McGraw and Little Big Town cover your songs and come up with big hits ("Humble and Kind" and "Girl Crush" respectively).

McKenna, who grew up and still lives in the Boston suburbs, wasn't her usual self on this evening due to being very hoarse after four shows in two days. "I brought my man voice for you," McKenna said at the start of the 65-minute set before she even sang a line. Lets it put it this way. McKenna typically has a much warmer voice. On the opening "Wreck You" from her most recent release, "The Bird and the Rifle," which sounded a bit bluesy, McKenna joked, "I'm trying to channel Tom Waits."

Despite that, McKenna entertained playing solo acoustic with a slew of quality songs and stories. Her songs are very relatable about real life and situations (the aforementioned "Humble and Kind" about giving advice to one's children, for example), including taking a look back at life as it used to be ("We Were Cool").

Unlike a lot of her contemporaries, McKenna's stories engage and have depth. She played a serious song with a humorous into about her 83-year-old father, "People Get Old," after saying he was due a song after she had penned several about her late mother.

There are a lot of lessons and values in McKenna's songs that go down pretty easy. Yes, McKenna's voice was not what it should have been tonight, but her warmth and songs made up for it. She has sounded better. Yet, McKenna remained a potent musical force in her most welcome annual homecoming.

McKenna's M.O. is to bring a special guest, and this weekend proved exactly that with Sunny Sweeney opening. The Texas native first gained some cred as an indie artist playing traditional country before going with a big label (Big Machine), losing some of what made her special, and going her own way again.

Sweeney released one of this year's best country discs, "Trophy," and stripped it down live with sidekick playing guitar. Sweeney proved to be very relaxed in the small setting, easily joking with both banter and song, including the unrecorded "Whiskey Richard," a song squarely focused on the sexual and performance.

On the flip side was a heartbreaker of a song and one of the most heartfelt, saddest and absolutely best songs of the year, "Bottle by the Bed," written with McKenna. This was not a drinking song, but, instead a song of longing for having a baby, something very personal for Sweeney. The subject matter wasn't easy, but Sweeney admirably pulled it off.

Sweeney let her voice carry another McKenna co-write, "Nothing Wrong with Texas" from "Trophy," (they wrote four together for the release) and "Uninvited," penned with another top-shelf writer, Natalie Hemby. Sweeney showed her mettle as writer, singer and performer in an excellent opening stint.