Signature Sounds Tenth Anniversary Concert – Calvin Theatre (Northampton, MA)
Those all-star, jam-session finales at concerts almost never move me. I mean, unless you have Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson tensely sharing the same microphone, you’re far more likely to achieve “The Last Schmaltz” at such gatherings.
Yet when the couple dozen Signature Sounds labelmates crowded the stage for their inevitable curtain call, I got caught up in the moment. These smiling, swaying artists appeared genuinely to like one another. As they traded verses on the Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris classic “In My Hour Of Darkness” and then on the late Dave Carter’s “Gentle Arms Of Eden”, I found myself grinning rather than wincing.
The camaraderie and the talent shined clearly throughout this celebratory tenth anniversary concert for the small but distinguished Massachusetts record label. On this five-hour night of roots, folk, pop, alt-country and bluegrass music (and the following night in Boston), there were stellar performances among the eighteen acts, as well as fruitful collaborations that tickled and electrified the packed theater.
People were popping on and off the stage in all directions. Erin McKeown, Kris Delmhorst and Mark Erelli, in fact, entered and exited the stage for guest spots more frequently than the most attentive of roadies. A tight and sharp-dressed house band, anchored by drummer Lorne Entress, guitarist Kevin Barry and bassist Richard Gates, supplied powerful dynamics when called upon.
The highlight was a three-song set from rising folk-pop star Josh Ritter (who recently made the jump from Signature to V2). Wearing a huge white cowboy hat, Ritter spun wildly colorful and embellished tales about his first meetings with the label. His set opened with an unreleased original called “Girl In The War”, invoking images of a girlfriend in combat, God, Peter & Paul, and Laurel & Hardy. He followed with a soaring performance of “Kathleen” from his dazzling Hello Starling album.
Finally, he lowered his microphone significantly and invited out McKeown to do a duet on “Tonight You Belong To Me”, made popular by Gene Autry in the 1920s. The stripped-down version Ritter and McKeown delivered was more like the ukulele beach rendition by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in the movie The Jerk; their harmonies were perfectly imperfect.
Jeffrey Foucault also played a standout mini-set. Backed by vocalist Kris Delmhorst and guitarist David “Goody” Goodrich, Foucault started off with “Northbound 35” from his Stripping Cane album. He brought out Peter Mulvey — Foucault, Delmhorst, Mulvey and Goodrich will release an album of Americana covers under the name Redbird in early 2005 — to do a buoyant version of Greg Brown’s “Ships”. The three singers traded off verses and hit impeccable two-and-three-part harmonies.
Then the house band emerged for a raucous version of Foucault’s bluesy “4&20 Blues”. Foucault admitted he was more used to playing acoustically: “The difference between playing by yourself and playing with a band is like the difference between driving and hydroplaning,” he said, drawing a lot of laughs.
Amy Rigby played the night’s most rocking set, hammering out “Why Do I” and “Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?” with the house band. She brought out all the other women performers on the bill to back her on a chugging “All I Want”.
Lori McKenna closed the pre-finale part of the show with fiery, full-band versions of “Monday Afternoon”, “When It’s Love” and “Bible Song”, all from her impressive 2004 album Bittertown.
Other high points included Pete Nelson doing a lovely version of “Way To Go On Dreaming”, McKeown doing “Hum” backed by a star-studded chorus of hummers, the Mammals’ rollicking “Chan Chan”, and Mulvey’s pretty “Sad Sad Sad Sad And Far Away From Home”.
The binding element among the diverse artists was an appreciation of the label they were there to celebrate. As Andrew Kinsey from Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem told the audience, “When we first started here, we were kids. Now we have kids. The experience with Signature Sounds is something we’ve grown up to — and grown up with.”