Mary Chapin Carpenter is a Jersey girl and on July 27 she came home to South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) to remind us of our roots. Opening for her was Emily Barker, a singer songwriter with a clear voice that bends like a willow and goes from angel to blues devil on a dime. We heard her singing before we heard her speak, yet something told me she was from outside the US … there’s a quality to her tone that speaks of Fairport Convention and Appalachian Spring. It turns out that Barker originated in Australia and is now resident in the UK. Her writing is present, clever, and musically delicious, and she is equally adept at piano and harmonica, as she is at guitar. You’ll recognize her voice if you’re a fan of “Wallander”, a Kenneth Brannagh television show centered around a Swedish detective. But it is Barker’s other songs that you’ll remember. As a devotee of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel and blues artist and guitarist extraordinaire during the 1930s and 1940s, during a time when it was difficult to be a woman and a traveling musician, Barker’s work shows that influence. Among the first to utilize distortion when playing her electric guitar, Sister Rosetta influenced the rock and roll pioneers, yet died a pauper and unknown. Barker’s tribute song, “Sister Goodbye,” is told from the perspective of Tharps’s bestie Roxie Moore, who performed on piano frequently with Sister Rosetta, and it has haunted me every since.
Mary Chapin Carpenter has been touring for 30 years. Her music is lyrical, intellectual, and clever and has a way of reaching in to wrap itself around the heart. Her band is an all star team of Don Dixon on bass, Nick Barnes on drums, Johnny Duke on acoustic and electric guitar and mandolin, and Jon Carroll on keys, who has done those 30 years of touring as well. They are a well matched group of musicians, who are clearly having a great time. Considering how many times they have done, and will do, this show–that is saying something! This has the grace and power of a stadium show and the intimacy of a house concert all at once. Even though I was surrounded by people, there is a folksy feel like friends are playing just for you.
“Sometimes Just the Sky” is Carpenter’s latest release and, in it, she revisits a song from each of her prior albums. Her antic sense of humor, one that I find in a number of high level musicians, gives a sense of merry mayhem to her work. An example? Number 13 on her playlist is her hit song “I Feel Lucky.” Carpenter is a storyteller extraordinaire, carrying the torch once held by Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, to whom she’s distantly related, and others. She aims straight at the heart and leaves you something amazing each time.
Highlights for me included “Stones in the Road” swapping “we doctor the receipt” for “he posts another Tweet,” a clever reference to Number 45. It was a Progressive Paradise while we were in Carpenter’s capable hands. “Passionate Kisses” leading right into a rocking version of “The Bug,” then changing up our mood entirely with the contemplative “The Shirt,” reminding us of the power an object can have as a focus for memories. “I Feel Lucky” was rendered in a Zydeco-Swing-Delta Bluesy-Honky Tonk rubato that had my heart beating in time. And when Carpenter set up “Sometimes Just the Sky,” describing the interview with Patti Smith that inspired it, my fulfillment was complete.
Whenever you get a chance to see a musician in an intimate setting–do it! There’s no better place than SOPAC to do it. SOPAC is conveniently located in the heart of South Orange adjacent to the NJ Transit Station. Find out what’s next at www.sopac.org