Kim Richey’s Shining Moment at the Tin Pan (Richmond, VA)
Thursday night, Kim Richey played the Tin Pan in Richmond, Virginia, holding the audience in rapt attention with her crystal clear voice, offbeat sense of humor, and superb set list. Accompanied only by Dean Tidey on guitar, the spare arrangements served to bring the honest lyrics to the forefront, and created room for the stories and their characters to breathe. Richey’s performance was a testament to the power of humility and understated presentation.
She started the evening with “Those Words We Said,” the lead track from her 1995 eponymous debut. What makes a 20-year-old song memorable? In rock and roll, it can be as simple as a catchy riff or a killer guitar solo. In singer-songwriter territory, it has to hold up lyrically and emotionally. It must convey some truth that doesn’t fade with fashion. Fortunately, all of that is Kim Richey’s stock-in-trade.
“Chinese Boxes” followed and demonstrated Richey’s ability to write about people and their interior landscapes. “You’ll Never Know” contrasted a bright and joyful melody with lyrics that painted a portrait of pain and sorrow. Three songs into the night, the room seemed to recede into the distance, as if there was only the listener and the performer.
In between songs, Richey shared interesting anecdotes. “Angel’s Share” started with a story about a time she was reading Garden and Gun magazine. “I’m okay talking about it here. In California they don’t really like that part.”
At one point Richey made a reference to her early career, and the pressure that record labels place on their artists. “That was back when people used to dress me,” she said. “Don’t let people dress you.” This night, standing only a few feet from the audience, sporting a simple denim frock, she seemed a world away from the once “spunky” blonde with big curls and an unlimited clothes budget. Her poise and stage presence accented the fact that the power in Richey’s career has always come from the songs themselves, and that power has not gone out of style. Sadly, it seems only natural that a label exec would completely miss that point.
Two decades into her career, Richey’s voice is as pure as ever, like the peal of church bells on a Sunday morning, trying hard to cast off the wounds of Saturday night. She has a knack for making heartache sound better than beautiful — a badge of honor to be desired. She travels the long distances of the heart without ever leaving town, and illuminates the lives of regular people trapped within their day-to-day, grappling with memories they cannot escape.
Sidekick Dean Tidey supplied nuanced and graceful guitar lines that embellished the material with emotional depth. His skillful playing was only eclipsed by his penchant for improvisation. “She likes to change up the set list,” he said at one point, with a grin. “I often end up playing in a different key, at the last minute.”
On a new song about Richey’s home state Ohio, Tidey’s fretwork was subtle and wistful, emphasizing that you can leave the place, but the place never leaves you.
Near the end of the show Richey’s quirky humor resurfaced. “We’ll play one more song, and then an encore song.” She paused, then added, “Okay, we’ll play two encores.”
The audience responded with laughter and applause. If it was up to the crowd, she would still be up there playing.