for my next trick: Erin McKeown at the Dream Away Lodge.
Jeremy D. Goodwin
Jeremy D. Goodwin
Away Lodge, Dec. 12
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
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.
Bells of the Gods
Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Eastern unit)
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.