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And for my next trick: Erin McKeown at the Dream Away Lodge.

Photo: Jeremy D. Goodwin

Way Up High

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

Erin McKeown

Dream Away Lodge, Dec. 12

High beams engaged, clutching my steering wheel tightly with both hands, I crawled along icy roads up the dark mountainside and found my way to the secluded Dream Away Lodge. There was a chance to see the very talented Erin McKeown play a solo set at this former booze shack in the woods of Becket, Mass., and the harrowing drive was not quite enough to scare me away.

Finally inside, I devoured a generous slab of warm apple crumble by the fireside and encountered a series of resident pets, each named for someone associated with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—the dog, not the ex-boxer—licked my plate. (Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez and crew famously visited and jammed at the Dream Away in the midst of that epic tour.)

As per tradition at the funky environs, there was no cover charge—just the passing of a tip jar—and the performance space was the end of a living room into which about 40 audience members squeezed, gamely crouched on any available chair, couch, or ottoman in sight.

Nodding to the intimacy of the space, McKeown played requests only, bravely pulling them from a top hat. The concept was promising, but ready-made to produce a disjointed, no-flow type of show. Turns out, it suited the performer’s wide-ranging catalog just fine.

If anything, this musicology student has been too creative and curious to lodge a foothold in any signature style. McKeown has dabbled in bedroom-songwriter fare, the occasional burst of badass rock & roll, sepia-toned jazz standards (“Honeysuckle Rose,” anyone?), and the middlebrow chamber folk of Hundreds of Lions, her latest longplayer. So the garage rock and conversational Latin of “Aspera” made as much sense next to the delightful, musical-theater-flavored “The Lions” as it ever will. E pluribus unum, indeed.

McKeown was in strong vocal form and tossed precise jazz chords left and right as she alternated between guitar and keyboard. The format led to some unexpected covers (“Over the Rainbow”) as well as deep catalog cuts like the lascivious “The Taste of You,” endearingly introduced with a story about McKeown’s affection for strip clubs—quite appropriate for the Dream Away, said to have once been a brothel.

After a double shot of Fats Waller’s dizzy reefer valentine “If You a Viper” and the near-novelty of Blossom Dearie’s “Rhode Island Is Famous for You,” there was unexpected emotional heft inside “Santa Cruz,” off Lions. The full-band studio version is the poppiest thing on the record, dominated by a cute-but-grating rim-drumming pattern. Stripped to just keyboard and voice, the song opened up disarmingly as the pained lament of someone utterly powerless to refuse a request from her lover, even as that person walks out the door. It was one memorable moment in a series of them, not so much blurring together as standing at arms’ length in a sequence. Yes, I might have traded in a little variety for pacing. But sometimes that’s the way the apple crumbles.

Sleigh Bells of the Gods

Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Eastern unit)

Times Union Center, Dec. 13

Just listening to the music of Trans-Siberian Orchestra doesn’t cut it. It’s not that their insane, inexplicably popular Emerson, Lake and Palmer/Bon Jovi-play-Christmas-music mashup isn’t effectively captured on disc. It is. Even better, the fantasy art work and “poetic” lyric booklets that come with TSO’s CD packaging bring back the incense-and-candle glory days of spacy 1970s concept albums with uncanny accuracy.

(Speaking of which: If you stare at the wizard dude on Night Castle’s inner sleeve until you pass out, a moon maiden, astride a unicorn, will visit you in a dream. Bong optional.)

The reason the TSO have to be seen to be believed is because they do “showmanship” as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. The first look at the stage setup at the Times Union Center was jaw-dropping, because most of the massive, heavy-duty lighting rig covered the entire front of the stage. It was as if some giant metal beast was the featured attraction.

In a way, it was. The house lights dimmed, and the beast came alive with flashing lights, in a blast of fog. It was lifted, as if by magic—though really by wires and hydraulic pulleys—into the air above the stage, and contorted itself into various shapes, flashing intricate patterns of color and light at the nearly sold-out matinee house.

Which is some pretty freaky shit for a PG show presented with an all-ages crowd in mind.

While this mechanical monster was the star of the show, the band played, too. A big part of the performance was a concept piece telling the story of a Christmas Eve, and a man who meets a stranger in a bar, a stranger who in turn tells the story of an angel visiting Earth on another Christmas Eve, an angel who flies all over the world looking for . . .

Forget it. Trying to explain the tissue-paper-and-Scotch-tape plot would be like trying to relate the meaning and imagery in Genesis’ “Return of the Giant Hogweed” to horticultural practices of the 1970s. Proggy concepts do not bear close examination. What TSO do well, however, is string together a lot of Christmas tunes and original power ballads, on which they hang heavy-metal guitar gestures, prog-rock flourishes and irresistible arena-rock-style pandering. They (TSO, Inc., that is) hire very talented musicians (including a string section drawn from the Albany Symphony), singers and a narrator (here, godlike-voiced Bryan Hicks) to flawlessly hit the emotional and musical high points.

Plus, they made it snow inside the TUC. Truly a gesture worthy of the rest of the show’s immaculate overkill.

—Shawn Stone

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