Words by: Cal Roach
Erin McKeown :: 02.27.07 :: Mad Planet :: Milwaukee, WI
Mad Planet played host to a pair of performers whose fortunes depended on emerging from long shadows. Opener Ethan Keller played a solo set of acoustic and electric funky folk, looping homemade beats underneath his playing, beatboxing and grooving to his carefree tunes. If this sounds like a description of another Keller you're not far off the mark. Someone needs to tell Ethan he's about a wig shy of looking like a tribute act. If he truly didn't borrow his schtick from Williams, he's going to be really bummed (and a little embarrassed) when he sees Williams live for the first time. Keller also had a few technical mishaps amidst his lighthearted but bland set He does get brownie points for throwing in a McKeown cover at the end.
Erin McKeown began her career as your basic Ani DiFranco-style urban folkie. She soon began to branch out into jazz-inflected pop, just as DiFranco had but with more swing. McKeown's subtlety has always set her apart from her outspoken predecessor. Her last album of original material, 2005's We Will Become Like Birds, found her shedding the last vestiges of her folk roots and forging into actual rock territory. However, the current tour is in support of 2007's Sing You Sinners, a collection of pre-World War II standards. McKeown likes to keep people guessing, and this show displayed her eclecticism to full effect. It wasn't always a smooth ride but it was energetic as hell.
The set was plagued with equipment problems from the start, most notably what sounded like a persistent short somewhere in the guitar connection. McKeown didn't let it bother her, though, and started with a rock 'n' swing rip through "Thanks For The Boogie Ride." The band, keyboardist Sam Kassirer and drummer Allison Miller, was loose, lively, and irony-free. Next came "Paper Moon," a sort of Buddy Holly vs. Hank Williams thing but not quite as Caucasian as that sounds. A disjointed but curiously endearing "To The Stars" showcased some jangly alt-honky-tonk organ set to a mod-rock beat. McKeown then pulled out an as-yet unreleased tune that suggests that her forthcoming album will continue the trend toward more indie rock. Its newness may have contributed to its shakiness, but it also really needed a solid bass line to take it where it was trying to go.
McKeown’s vocal projection was inconsistent, like she was using a borrowed mic or something, and her generally clear-as-a-bell voice seemed a bit smokier than usual tonight. It may have been mid-tour fatigue or Midwest chill but whatever the cause a trio of songs from 2003's Grand all sounded scratchy compared to the originals. "James!" started strong but quickly faded until a grungy guitar solo capped it off. "The Taste Of You" featured a seductive cocktail-gospel organ that brought out the song's essence. The band followed these with three more uptempo swingers, "Get Happy," "Mine," and "Sing You Sinners." This was clearly the most well-rehearsed stuff. It brought to mind a Carl Perkins Trio as conducted by Duke Ellington - vivacious, steeped in historic Americana yet quirky enough to sound fresh.
The band took a break and McKeown fielded requests. First was fan-fave "Queen Of Quiet," and it felt like McKeown's voice had finally shaken the cobwebs loose. Combined with some groovin' electric guitar, this was one of the most rousing tunes of the night. "Slung-Lo" and "Born To Hum" were big sing-alongs. The band returned for another new indie rock flavored tune that was moody but not hollow. "White City" amped up that tension with a post folk-rock dynamic. McKeown's guitar prowess really shone through, and the band sounded like a genuine unit for maybe the first time all night. The set closed with a blaze through "We Are More" and "I Was A Little Too Lonely." The encore of the nursery rhyme adaptation "Blackbirds" was a perfect example of McKeown's penchant for updating the archaic. This performance was riveting, with McKeown's crushing guitar work and a backbeat that got the whole room bouncing giddily.
Erin McKeown may be a true pop historian. She brings together disparate eras and styles of music into a strictly controlled amalgam. Even if it's not always cohesive, she's carved out her niche, rising above any comparisons she had to live down early on in her career. She's got great, dynamic timing that's occasionally underserved by her somewhat ragtag ensemble (her usual bassist Todd Sickafoose would have been a great help) but she’s got the confidence of the little-league underdog coach and the charisma to will the group into knocking one out of the park from time to time.
JamBase | Milwaukee
Go See Live Music!