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Lori McKenna brings it on home

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., December 20, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The weather conditions - a bad snowstorm the day before, which continued into the next day - were not enough to keep Lori McKenna down. For the second year running, the pride of Stoughton, Mass. brightened up late December evenings with a run of shows at the famed folk club.

McKenna mixed it up as advertised from night to night, playing solo one night, doing covers another night, and on this, the final night and fifth of sixth shows, McKenna was with her band.

Well, she actually didn't start that way, appearing solo acoustic for the opening number where she rang a lot of emotion out of her voice.

The tempo picked up with her band coming out for How Romantic Is That. Russell Chudnofsky added an atmospheric guitar layer to the proceedings, giving the music some bite.

McKenna's music tended to be rootsy/country flavored, although she would never be considered a straight-ahead country singer. The instrumentation underscored that with Mark Erelli played a key role, whether on mandolin or acoustic guitar. The long-time side man to McKenna is a valuable asset.

McKenna's career break came when Faith Hill recorded three of her songs for an album. McKenna no longer needs to lean on that connection, never mentioning Hill, although she did turn in a solid reading of Stealing Kisses.

McKenna turned in good interpretations of Dream a Little Dream, made famous by Mama Cass Elliott and the closing It Makes No Difference from The Band, underscoring her rootsy side.

McKenna, as ever, is an affable performer. She presumably thinks of herself as the mother of five next door who has carved out a musical career. She's not big whatsoever on ego and forgetting what a song was in not any sort of catastrophe.

The one negative was that at times McKenna, who does not lack for vocal power, could not always be heard above the band.

Chances are that McKenna will never be a big commercial star. That's quite all right though so long as she keeps making solid music and turning in winning performances like this.

McKenna has a knack of bringing in very strong, unknown openers from Nashville. Last year, it was Caitlin Rose. This year, the honor went to Stephanie Chapman. The Virginian has enjoyed some songwriting success, landing a cut with Trisha Yearwood.

But she also has a career going as a performer, and it's easy to see why. Chapman, who performed with her husband, ace session guitarist Nathan Chapman, has a really strong, intimate voice. She confidently breathes a lot of life into the songs, while knowing that she was playing before a crowd foreign to her music.

Chapman made good use of her half hour on stage, performing songs from her upcoming 2009, self-released disc co-produced by Ray Kennedy along with Try Me, the song Yearwood recorded. Chapman, with good instrumental and occasional backing vocal help from her sidekick, proved quite enjoyable.