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Pickin’ and grinnin’: Kate McGarrigle with Michel Pepin. Photo by John Whipple.

Let Them Linger
By David Greenberger

Kate and Anna McGarrigle
WAMC Performing Arts Center, Jan. 18

It’s been more than a quarter-century since Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s first album appeared. The self-titled set of a dozen songs deservedly topped many critics lists for that American bicentennial year. Along with their subsequent releases, it’s a model of perfectly jeweled songwriting married to arrangements, playing and singing flush with a casual warmth that belies deep and resonant musical skills.

Last Saturday night’s performance at the Linda Norris Auditorium marked WAMC’s heady ascension into the world of sold-out shows. The sisters were joined by violinist Joel Zifkin (with them since early ’80s) and bass and electric guitarist Michel Pepin (a decade in the fold), along with intermittent appearances by Kate’s daughter Martha Wainwright and Anna’s husband Don Lanken and daughter Lily. The sisters’ shows have always been gently propelled by a sort of familial ease, like a living room vignette brought to the stage. Even the poorly proportioned and lit room fell under their sway, as if anywhere they decamp en masse becomes their home for the couple-hour duration. (The stage is too low and the windows should have been curtained, closing out the street scenes and chill outside.)

The evening’s two sets drew from throughout their sparse but potent catalog (eight albums in 28 years), opening and closing with numbers from that ever-resilient debut—Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song” and Kate’s “Talk to Me of Mendocino”—both of which date from the years when the two were married and lived for a time in Saratoga Springs.

Switching instruments between most songs (Kate and Anna moving between banjo, accordion, guitars and piano, Pepin from bass to guitar, Zifkin from violin to guitar, etc.) has always lent each show its own character. They made these switches overtly yet unobtrusively, with even the necessary tunings being handled with apology-free candor. The second set opened with two numbers performed by cousins Martha and Lily, the former of whom has a couple CDs out on her own. Favorites like “Complainte Pour Ste Catherine” and “Heart Like a Wheel” were mixed with songs from the relatively recent McGarrigle Hour (1998) and their bracing but somewhat overlooked gem from 1996, Matapedia.

The McGarrigles’ songs each are a complete experience, moving forward with their own poetic, dramatic and sonic momentum. Yet, like film, short passages—a lyric, the sound of their interwoven voices on a particular word or phrase—leave an emotional imprint, lingering days, weeks, years in the heart and mind.

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