Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Scanning the dial and searching the sky

When I was a freshman in college, I bought tickets to see Shawn Colvin live in Columbus, Ohio. But thanks to poor planning on my part, I never made it to that show. It took me 13 years, but last weekend I finally righted that unfortunate misstep when I took my mom to Shawn's 10 o'clock solo acoustic show at the Old Town School of Folk.

She's totally wonderful by herself on a stage. Her wit and self-deprecating humor are endearing and entertaining and her songs are spare and stunning and powerful. But the thing that really stands out when you hear her play live is what a truly brilliant cover artist she is. I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised by that, since my introduction to her music was through her 1994 album Cover Girl, which featured Shawn's reworkings of other people's songs.

On Saturday, we were treated to two songs written by Robbie Robertson of The Band, "Acadian Driftwood" and "Twilight," (which is featured on Cover Girl), as well as the Talking Heads' "Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)" (also on Cover Girl). And then she pulled out a gorgeously sad version of Simon and Garfunkel's masterpiece "America," which she informed us she had recently performed as a duet with Paula Cole at the Summerstage fundraiser in Central Park last week. (That fundraiser is another story entirely -- it paired modern folkies and tasked them with recreating a Simon and Garfunkel hit. She told us that Loudon Wainwright and his daughter Lucy did "Bleecker Street" and Aimee Mann and "some guy I don't remember" (John Roderick) did "Only Living Boy in New York," maybe? Must have been amazing.)

She often jokes that her songs tend toward the depressing and melancholy, and what makes her such a good cover artist is that she is able to draw out the emotional heart of other people's songs in much the same way. In her cover of "America," for instance, I've never really heard the line, "'Kathy, I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping/ 'I'm empty and aching and I don't know why'" in quite the way I heard it when Shawn sang it. And her version of Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" is still the definitive version, as far as I'm concerned. (Listen to that and "Naive Melody" on her MySpace page.)

And I had heard Joni Mitchell's "River" a thousand times but I never really knew what the song was about until I heard Shawn's plaintive voice sing, "I'm so hard to handle/ I'm selfish and I'm sad/ Now I've gone and lost the best baby that I ever had."

Of course, her own songs are wonderful as well. I was particularly impressed on Saturday with "Wichita Skyline." I haven't been able to get it out of my head. Here she is performing it at Lilith Fair in 1997:

And listening to it live, I heard "Polaroids" in a whole new way as well. It's a much sadder song than it sounds on the album. Here is a comparable performance from a couple of years ago:

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