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Lori McKenna and friends pull it off

Club Passim, Boston, December 19, 2007

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The last time Lori McKenna played the Boston area, she was right in the middle of the floor at the TD BankNorth arena, opening for her buddies Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in front of about 17,000 for 2 nights.

Fast forward to Wednesday when the local singer, who has made a name for herself on the national scene, played the comparatively teensy Club Passim, selling out its 130 or so seats.

McKenna fans need not worry - her star has not fallen that far that fast. In fact, McKenna was beginning the first night of a four-night run, changing it up most of the nights.

For a few hours, she engaged in a guitar pull with Marc Erelli, her guitarist and a rootsy performer in his own right, and Jake Armerding, Massachusetts-bred, but New York City-based. They were aided by upright bassist Zack Hickman of Josh Ritter's band.

In a guitar pull, the performers are (usually) seated and take turns in singing songs with the others sometimes helping out on the instrumentation or backing vocals.

While most of the crowd probably came to see McKenna, it was not only her night to shine. Armerding acquitted himself quite well with a solid voice and a very winning stage presence. He has a good sense of humor and is of quick wit, plus a multi-instrumentalist on fiddle, mandolin and acoustic guitar.

Not sure he's to be given credit, but he started off with a fun rendition of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which set up for an evening of generally well known songs. Armerding demonstrated a strong sense of humor later by covering Wham, although he did not camp it up to his credit.

Erelli is a rootsier singer, Dylanesque at times, meaning his voice isn't entirely smooth. But he puts the songs across well, including Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over."

McKenna doesn't seem like she would be of such a powerful voice as she has a friendly, easy going style about her, quite comfortable talking her five kids, but when she gets singing, the power and beauty come out. While she certainly has enjoyed a greater profile than her fellow musicians, McKenna never pulled rank, nor did they profess obeisance either.

One highlight was "Dry Town," a song by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings made more famous by Miranda Lambert.

McKenna also did a few Steve Earle songs, including a sharp cover of "My Old Friend the Blues" and "Someday."

She also showed her seasonal and political bent by leading John Lennon's "Merry Xmas (War is Over)." It was a fitting end to an evening of good music just before the holidays.