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Lots to like about McKenna (when you could hear her)

The City Winery, Boston, July 18, 2018

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Lori McKenna had lots of reasons to be in a good mood. First off, the opening band, a pop act called teenender included two of her sons. In two days, her 11th disc, "The Tree" would be released to glowing reviews.

So it would seem that this homecoming show was the ideal setting with all five kids, her husband, siblings, cousins, people who went to Stoughton High School with her more than three decades before and long-time fans in the sold-out house.

The problem for chunks of the night was that it was intermittently difficult to hear McKenna. That's a big problem considering her vast songwriting skills, which were amply on display on "The Tree" as well.

McKenna has a knack for turning phrases into visual palettes. Life isn't always pretty in McKenna's songs - something she would joke about after a few such songs early on - but she also has the distinct ability to capture moods and moments that are highly relatable. Unfortunately, there's a bit of a disconnect if you can't hear the nuances all that well.

After the opening song, "A Mother Never Rests," a fan in the house shouted that she couldn't hear McKenna because the bass was too high. That wasn't the only time there was a problem.

With a backing quartet in support, the mix often failed McKenna.

But there were enough moments and sufficient opportunities for McKenna to show she is much more than a songwriter who has done exceedingly well in the country market. There is a reason why she has been able to sustain and grow her own indie career after long ago being abandoned by a major label.

McKenna matches her keen writing abilities with an always warm, friendly stage presence. It's never been about her, even when it could have been. Instead, she beams with pride about her sons; jokes about family situations and speaks of her late mother before launching into "Lorraine." And then she talks about "People Get Old," a song about her father, now in his early 80s.

As she always does, McKenna would sometimes talk about the songwriting process as well ("The Fixer," in particular), bringing the songs and stories just a little bit closer to the audience.

When the music was softer, McKenna's vocals and lyrics came through nicely. Long-time guitarist and backing vocalist Marc Erelli was her usual worthy sidekick.

Despite her hits as a songwriter, McKenna did not rely on them to carry her through. She ended the regular set with her second most successful song, "Humble And Kind," an award winning hit for Tim McGraw, and her two-song encore with megahit "Girl Crush." Yes, they may be the commercial crown jewels, but only represented a small part of what makes McKenna a force.

There was a lot to like about McKenna. It just would have been even better if we could have heard more of her.