She Ain’t Your Mama’s Folk Singer: Erin McKeown at The Irving Theater
Many artists suffer an identity crisis that is perhaps brought on by record labels and the media, and perhaps necessarily so. In order to market singers, they need to label them with a genre, a style, a descriptor. Since about the late 80s when artists, such as Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega, resurrected the stripped-down singer/songwriter genre, the term “folk” has been used to describe lone troubadours who write and play thought-provoking and emotionally-confessionary music, mostly acoustically.
But what is folk music? It conjures up many images: mountain string bands, sit-ins, political rallies, front-porch swings, Joan Baez. It’s probably safe to say that these days most people don’t listen to music to acquaint themselves with sociopolitical problems of the world. If anything, people want to avoid such songs, not because they aren’t concerned about such things but because they like good music.
Last Saturday at the Irving Theater, indie music veteran and political activist and “folk” singer Erin McKeown gave long-time fans and newbies a taste of her twelfth and completely fan-funded studio album, Manifestra, released January 2013, and shattered a few iconoclasts about folk music, activism, and girls with guitars.
Perhaps an obscure name in the Midwest, McKeown is a mighty force in the indie music industry. She has headlined prominent festivals including Bonnaroo, Newport Folk, Glastonbury, and Oxegen, appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and has been featured numerous times on NPR and BBC. Of all her glowing reviews newspapers the world over, it was perhaps The Boston Globe who best captured her talent and essence: “Her playing is so muscular, her arrangements so well conceived that she succeeds brilliantly. As with all truly great guitarists, the wonder is less in her chops than her choices.” (You can read NPR’s World Café recent interview and listen to the “tiny desk concert” here.)
Manifestra is a marked departure from her previous eleven albums, most of which could be described as more emotional than political. An exception would be her highly successful 2011 album “F&ck That!” a tongue-in-cheek anti-holiday hymnal album. According to her website, “It’s the world’s first anti-capitalist, pro-queer, suspicious of Christmas-as-patriotism, sex-positive, not safe for work, multi-ethnic, radical leftist Anti-Holiday record. There is nothing redeeming about Christmas in any of these 10 songs. Please note this album contains adult language and themes completely inappropriate for children. On purpose.”
Her music has been foremost categorized as folk (funk and blues are secondary descriptors), despite the fact that Manifestra is her first foray into socially-conscious music. Long espousing the belief that she has a responsibility to this world merely by being in it, she was certain that music was the tool she was given to effect social change, but she was reluctant to embrace that until Manifestra. She explained as she tuned her guitar:
“This latest album was a long time coming, and that’s because I fought it for a long time. It’s a political album. It’s about internal politics and external politics and world politics. The problem with political songs is that they often, well, unfortunately, suck. You know, good message, bad music, and for me, it’s always been about music.”
But McKeown is not your typical political singer. And she ain’t your mama’s—er Grandma’s?—folk singer, either. For one thing, she plays the electric guitar. For another, she doesn’t wear long skirts and dread locks. And despite the message in her music, she’s not all that serious. She set the tone by joking how good it was to be back in Indianapolis for the first time since 1972, when she opened for Joan Baez–quite a feat for the Brown-educated minstrel who was born in 1977. (This was actually her first visit to Indy.) Perhaps that is her secret—she takes her music seriously and delivers it honestly but not solemnly. She allows the audience to have fun with her, even if she is singing about the ludicrous logic of the death penalty.
Dressed in a white polyester pant suit that John Travolta would envy and adorned with what appears to be a tattoo of an entire tree that covers most of her body, and wearing something of a hybrid between a Mohawk and a pony tail, McKeown’s performance was happy, ingenuous, energetic, and electrifying. Imagine if cheerleaders cheered and smiled about something that mattered in life and didn’t dress like strippers, and you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to watch Erin McKeown on stage. It is impossible to watch her perform and not have a good time.
How does she get away with writing meaningful music that people actually enjoy? She does so by staying true to songwriting and poetry. She tells her political messages with metaphor so that listeners can choose how they want to experience it. The artistry of the words is not lost in the meaning of the words, and the metaphors could apply to many conditions of the heart or the world.
Her song “The Jailer” is a perfect example of why McKeown shatters labels quicker than the media can slap them on her. Fast-paced with a dirtied-up ska sound, McKeown described how a recent visit to the Southwest where she was briefed on the building of walls—namely the wall that separates Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico—inspired this poetic yet political song. She quipped, “It’s the same company that built the fence that someone thought should separate Israel from Palestine. I mean, what is this company? Wall-Mart?”
“Baghdad to the Bayou,” a song she co-wrote via text message with pal MSNBC political commentator Rachel Maddow, is also receiving a lot of media buzz. It is a commentary on their separate experiences in covering the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
When she’s not shredding her electric guitar or turning the spotlight to the horn section—section being one man, Matt Douglas—or the drummer, Marc Dalio, she’s enchanting the audience with her sense of humor and warmth. And then there’s her soft side. A skilled musician on the guitar, mandolin, and banjo, she becomes a different artist altogether when she sits at the piano. She casually slings her electric guitar over her back, takes a seat at the bench, and a sad and tender side comes out. Her voice even changes when she’s at the piano to something more mournful and sonorous. Between piano verses, she slings her electric guitar around and does a solo, then goes right back to the ivories, seamlessly.
It’s distinctions like these—playing multiple instruments and possessing many personas—that takes an artist from being musician to being a gifted musician. You sit in awe not just of their talent, but in their dedication to their talent. You think of the useless nights you wasted, yammering in bars or watching television, when a singer like Erin McKeown was holed up in her cabin rural Massachusetts, writing, refining, and practicing, practicing, practicing, and you might think twice about how you spend your idle time. You may not be able to define her music, but chances are her music might define—and refine—the lucky listener.
And a word about lucky listeners. You don’t have to be lucky to get in on music like this. Indy is a small city for sure, but it’s just big enough that indie singers, such as Erin McKeown, who sell out much larger halls in bigger cities, will take a chance on us.
We’re glad you gave us that chance last Saturday, Erin, and we wouldn’t have these opportunities for non-arena non-Ticket Master events without the likes of the Irving Theater and Segment of Society Promotions. Look them up. Take a chance. Go out on a limb. You may just find that you’ll never want to visit an arena that is named after a major corporation again.