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Lori McKenna shines solo

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., December 21, 2007

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Kickstart Country Standard Time to Nashville
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The casual observer might think that life has not been too kind to Lori McKenna, at least based on the subject matter of her songs, which are of the real sad variety, often dealing with death of people and relationships.

But if you think a concert by McKenna would be a real downer, nope. At the second night of her four-night run at this listening room (McKenna said, "This is still my favorite place to play songs for you" without sounding the least bit condescending), McKenna brought her winning, easy going, suburban mom personality with a slew of well put together songs.

McKenna doesn't put on any airs, that's for sure. At the very outset of the 100-minute show on a very snowy day, McKenna said, "I'm so proud of all of you for coming. I was shoveling my driveway at 2 and was hoping people would come."

McKenna generally performed solo acoustic, although she received some help from guitarist Marc Erelli, a regular member of her band. He played with her the previous night in a singer/songwriter type merry go round of three doing a covers show.

Erelli gave atmospherics to the songs, with his guitar and mandolin.

But McKenna certainly was strong enough of a performer to carry on solo. She repeated one song from the previous night, another satisfying version of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings's "Dry Town," which Miranda Lambert recorded.

McKenna turned in a good reading of her next single, "Witness to Your Life" from last summer's "Unglamorous."

Not everything was familiar to the audience because McKenna played several new, unrecorded and even barely written songs. After a forceful vocal outing on a brand new song (perhaps titled "When You're With It") which was on the downer side, she followed it up with "How Romantic Is That," a well-written love song that she earmarked for her next CD.

McKenna didn't have to dig very deep into her catalogue on this night. The musically forceful "Cryin Shame" was written only a few weeks ago with Jessica Harp, one half of The Wreckers. "We're both happy people who write sad songs," said McKenna. "We wrote two ballads and said we should try to write a happy song. We gave up and wrote this one instead."

One of McKenna's most poignant songs was "Leaving This Life," a song about the death of her mother when the singer was a youth.

McKenna's career went on an upward trajectory a few years ago thanks to Faith Hill recording three of her songs for "Fireflies" and going on tour with Hill and husband Tim McGraw on their Soul2Soul 2007 tour this past summer. McKenna turned in a solid effort on "Stealing Kisses," which she recorded on her "Bittertown" CD.

She followed that with probably the best new song she played on this evening, "Make Every Word Hurt." McKenna introduced it by saying, "This may be the saddest song I've ever written." McKenna said she hoped that Martina McBride would record it, but she rejected it, looking for a more positive song. No problem, however, because Hill cut it two weeks ago for an upcoming CD. One could easily imagine Hill doing the heartfelt song a lot of justice with lines like "I'm not going to love you any more/you're nothing I need." At one point near the very end of the show, McKenna told the crowd not to worry about her, which they may have based on the subject matter of the songs. "Everything is fine," said McKenna or something like that.

And why shouldn't it be for the usually very very upbeat and cheerful McKenna. She's enjoyed success she probably thought she would never have, even if she looks at the dark side.

Caitlin Rose, a somewhat quirky, 20-year-old performer from Nashville preceded McKenna. This was one of those cases where Rose opened presumably because her mother, songwriter Liz Rose (She penned Taylor Swift's "Tim McGraw" and "Teardrops On My Guitar") writes with McKenna.

But thinking that would be selling Rose way short. She is very funny and quick witted. And she certainly has a sense of style. She opened and closed by singing and playing tambourine, a little different.

Rose stuck to acoustic guitar most of the time with a bit of help from Erelli, who kicked in as he was able, fleshing out the sound more.

And she certainly has some real good material. "Shotgun Wedding" is about a waitress she knew, but wasn't friends with at the local Waffle House, who got married quickly. Even better was "Answer in One of These Bottles," a pretty hard core country song where she really lets her voice out. Rose, who recalls Iris DeMent vocally, received a lot of backing vocal help from the crowd, who really took in Rose and gave her a strong hand, apparently much to her surprise.

Rose is used to playing bars in Nashville where folks apparently don't pay so much attention. A bit tentative and nervous at first, Rose grew more and more confident as the evening progressed and the audience took to her. A strong Boston debut.