and grinnin: Kate McGarrigle with Michel Pepin.
Photo by John Whipple.
By David Greenberger
Kate and Anna McGarrigle
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