Erin McKeown at the Great American Music Hall

15 May

Erin McKeown’s Grand was one of my top two favorite albums of 2003 (it was probably my second favorite, after Danny Barnes’s incredible Dirt on the Angel, but who’s counting). I missed the chance to see her live last year when she was touring with the Be Good Tanyas (like the Wilco show at the Fillmore that I missed, when they were touring for Mermaid Avenue, missing that show is one of my musical regrets), so Chad and I went to see her last night at the Great American. I got us on the list, and when we went to the box office to get our tickets, the woman handed us two wristbands, saying, “In the back, down the stairs.” I couldn’t believe it, backstage passes. This is the first time I’ve actually gotten backstage passes to a show.

The opening act, a German singer-songwriter named Teitur, was performing. Perched atop a stool in a T-shirt and cotton pants, his legs pressed closely together while he sang, he played some really beautiful, sensitive love songs with some really adventurous melodies, accompanied by his mostly fingerstyle guitar. He reminded me of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, more in concept than sound. During the break between acts, I picked up his CD which, if the first few tracks we listened to in the car on the way home are any indication, may be very heavily overproduced. Why do major labels sign acoustic acts? They just don’t know what to do with them.

Erin came out with just her and a drummer, and she really pulled off the sparse band sound rearranging her songs to cover the bass, rhythm, and lead parts on her Gretsch. It was during this show that I realized what a hopelessly underrated guitar player she is, simply because she just hasn’t hit it big. In her playing, she blends elements of so many genres: the advanced harmonies of jazz, the fire of blues-rock, the multivoiced guitar parts of rockabilly and country. And still manages to synthesize it all in a way that is completely her own style. She switched between the Gretsch (I love the sound of Gretsches) and what I later found out was a Gibson Chet Atkins slim-body acoustic-electric that sounded great. The drummer was great, too, playing just enough to really fill out the sound and create these amazingly complex rhythm parts that suited her guitar playing perfectly. She did a lot of older songs, about half of Grand, and a couple of songs that will be on her new album.

At one point she said something about wanting to bring an element of danger to the show, and that if she could, she would string a tightrope across the room from the upper balconies and walk across it for us. Later in the show, when she couldn’t quite remember the words to one song, someone shouted out, “Pencils!” “You want to sing it?” she asked. “I’m serious.” Jacob came up and got a few lines into it before forgetting the words himself (he was about twice as tall as Erin–it was pretty comical). “See how hard it is?” she asked. She thanked him, we all gave him a round of applause, she remembered the words, and kept singing (“Pencils, come from Pennsylvania…”).

After the show, Chad and I were pretty tired, so we went backstage to say hello to Erin’s publicist/manager, Emily (who got me the tickets), and head home. The only one backstage was Erin, so I introduced myself and tried not to gush too much about how much I enjoyed the show. She was super nice, and we talked guitars for a moment. Then Matt Nathason came backstage, Erin introduced us, and they both gushed for a moment about AG and how cool it was to give the What They Play info for their articles, that it was their favorite parts. Matt said that he geeks out and checks out the WTP’s online and has saved gearboxes from Eddie Van Halen and some other rockers (I forget now who they were).

All in all, it was pretty cool to meet musicians who I really admire and who are nice folks. I love finding that out about people. As Chad and I were walking up the stairs to leave, I said, “She’s my guitar hero.”

I never did find Emily, though.

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