Maria McKee – Iota (Arlington, VA)
Maria McKee isn’t one for artifice. After asking the patrons of this suburban Washington, D.C. club not to smoke during the show (they obliged) and then jokingly complaining about the effect the humidity was having on her fifth-generation Southern California sensibilities (it was glorious weather for D.C.), she got down to business and put the Tuesday night crowd into a spellbound trance.
McKee’s musical theater training from her teens has never abandoned her. While her songs are smooth combinations of country, folk and pop — summarized by most as “roots” — her rising and falling vocals are straight out of South Pacific. Her special strength is her ability to corral the theatrical tendencies and channel them into dynamic, soulful songs of heart and grit.
McKee started the 80-minute set solo, strumming an acoustic guitar and quickly settling the audience. That quiet tone disappeared when her band took the stage for “I Just Can’t Make It By Myself”, followed by “Am I The Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)”, both tunes swelling to satisfying climaxes. The latter song was covered by the Dixie Chicks, inspiring McKee to recall why she doesn’t get invited to their events any longer; apparently the last time they met, she paid a bit too much attention to Natalie Maines’ actor husband Adrian Pasdar.
On this night, her own husband, Jim Akin, was under Iota’s web of tiny pink lights with her, and it was his mellifluous bass lines that held the songs together. “I inherited this band when I got married,” McKee said, adding that the trio had been together for more than twenty years. It was easy to believe, as the interplay on the arrangements was wonderfully smooth.
The same musicians are on McKee’s new record, Peddlin’ Dreams. On the title tune, for which McKee moved to electric piano, drummer Tom Dunne skillfully brushed the percussion parts, careful not to obscure the delicate song.
Several times in the set, guitarist Jerry Andrews fired off fiery solos on his Gretsch Country Gentleman, but for the most part he was content to be a strong supporting player rather than calling attention to himself.
McKee’s rendition of Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues” was as intense as the crowd was quiet, and when it was over, everyone, McKee included, breathed a sigh of relief.