Mary Chapin Carpenter, Barbican Centre, London, UK
My greatest impression of this show demonstrated by all performers is the purity of the musician’s craft. Openers Applewood Road’s harmonies, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songs and voice as well as the way the band supported her and displayed their own talents were all done without a wasted note or word. This was a perfect example of the skilled craft that is writing and performing memorable songs and creating the accompanying music.
Support Applewood Road presented a superb array of harmonies, mainly with minimal accompaniment that enveloped the potentially daunting Barbican hall, usually home to big classical music events. A word about Applewood Road; it is always good to see a full attendance for the support act but perhaps like me they had an idea what they were in for and didn’t want to miss the opportunity of getting to know this highly creative and engaging trio. Amy Speace, Amber Rubarth and Emily Barker played much of their eponymous debut record leaving to warm and appreciative applause. Three highlights were the title track, “Applewood Road”, “Home Fires” and REM’s “Losing My Religion”. They return to London in November so hopefully a full review then.
Mary Chapin Carpenter’s recent release, “The Things That We Are Made Of”, brings her total of studio albums to 14 so there was a lot to choose from in terms of a setlist. And that’s what we got, a selection from that catalogue with a good introduction to the new record. Two new songs, “Map of My Heart” and “Something Tamed Something Wild” opened what was a relaxed but upbeat performance where the impression, certainly from the front-ish stalls, was a of a group of musicians clearly enjoying their work. This is the MCC most in the almost sold-out Barbican had come for. It was certainly in contrast to my previous Mary show; her “Songs From the Movie” performed with a full orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of years ago. A further contrast of this show was Mary’s apparent sense of ease. That came out not only in her performance but also in her chat in between songs, describing the new record as a summary of how we slow down and take stock of things more as we move through life. She seems to have pushed through a period of introspection characterised by “Ashes and Roses” prompted by a time of great personal sadness. Not that these haven’t gone; the new record is in loving memory to her friend and producer, John Jennings.
Keeping up the tempo and going back to 1993 came “Passionate Kisses” written by Lucinda Williams then on a year for “Shut Up and Kiss Me”. Already we were watching a band that had slipped comfortably into their groove; “full house and a rock and roll band” said Mary striking a dangerously authentic axe-hero pose. While billed as a Mary Chapin Carpenter show, the band merits high praise. It’s a hard job being a backing band, particularly when they are such talented musicians in their own right. However, this group moved effortlessly from support to centre stage throughout the evening. On bass, Don Dixon, drums, Nate Barnes, piano/keyboard, Jon Carroll and lead guitar Johnny “Duke” Lippencott. All look worth following. Johnny Duke playing his red strat was further evidence this was a rock and roll band.
The next four songs brought the pace back to perhaps where we know Mary best with songs old and new laden with feeling; Stones in the Road”, “Oh Rosetta”, inspired by the great gospel and blues singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “I am a Town”, “Livingston” and “This Shirt”. Mary spans the decades with ease having a particular knack for identifying themes and thoughts written some time ago that remain completely relevant today. “Stones in the Road” goes back to 1968 and a ten year old Mary’s impressions of the world. As she remarked, still applicable today.
The set’s final third mixed old and new, reflective and rocking; “The Bug”, gave Johnny Duke an opportunity to wield the red strat again, his version of another red strat player, the song’s writer Mark Knopfler. The penultimate song, “The Blue Distance” from the new album, perfectly summed up where Mary is at just now. She described her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, walking with her dog and being at one with herself, if not quite in step with the pace of the world beyond. Who wouldn’t be inspired by such a life?
I don’t imagine the Barbican audiences usually get to their feet with the gusto they did on Sunday to bring Mary and her band back for three encores; “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, “Down at the Twist and Shout” and we were sent home with the title track of “The Things We are Made Of”.
It was a pleasure to see Mary in such good form. Long live 58.