“I want you to make me uncomfortable,” Erin McKeown instructed from the microphone, having paused suddenly during “(put the fun back in) the funeral,” a song that takes claustrophobia by the horns and shakes it. Hard. A Gretsch rested alert and at the ready across her torso.
On command, the audience broke into discomfort-inducing whispers. Not the polite kind you hear slipped in between movements at string quartets and classical concerts. Or the quick sssshhh that comes after the wild, laughing exchange of a secret. No. These were Ghostbusters-caliber whispers, the kind that snake out from gutters and pothole covers when something slimy is on its way downtown.
“Like, I want to feel like you’re talking about me behind my back,” she continued. Winding, decorative tattooed talons and branches stretched out over her chest and arms, climbing like vines from her crisp white blazer.
The audience continued, some members laughing at the musical-banter-cum-participatory-exercise. And then, mustering the strength among the whispers, she grinned a wide, open-mouthed grin, and began to play again.
Friday night McKeown appeared with musician Jake Klar at the Ballroom at the Outer Space, drawing a crowd of close to 75 despite a late March snow. With sets that matched folk and blues with pop, punk, politics and a little R&B, the two gave exactly the kind of performance needed to jolt the audience out of some serious winter doldrums.
There are plenty of reasons why. McKeown has opened herself to rock, pop, swing, blues, a not drippy Judy Garland tribute, a musical, and most recently some rap in her prolific, mega LGBT friendly and growing career, and her sets are a delightful gumbo of all of these. Her voice slips into the territory of Florence Welch and Elena Tonra with its depth and texture, but stands alone in its complete clarity, a dinner bell ringing through a drafty home until the whole place is warm. Her stage presence fills a room before the lights have come fully up. She feels immediately like an old friend from another life, her artist’s banter venturing from acrimonious breakups to political commentary.
She is, more simply, the kind of artist who will give you a varied, confetti-colored pocketful of secrets in return for a smile and some applause. She is easy listening without anything inherently easy about it. I matured in the corners of her voice: “We Will Become Like Birds” was the soundtrack to my first summer away from home, when she was on the road with with Ani DiFranco; “Hundreds of Lions,” which sees a relationship from start to finish, seemed universal as I listened to it as a college student; “Manifestra” played in the background while I watched the man I had campaigned for twice become the country’s deporter-in-chief.
Which is to say, she channels a profound nostalgia for the past while remaining completely, refreshingly present. Her lyrics hold worlds of experience: that exquisitely botched kiss on a friend’s couch, the disbelief and clutching anger of watching people turn on their neighbors; the poetry in meeting your idol and realizing they are not your idol at all.
McKeown may have been the main act of the evening, but the good juju started spreading long before she got to the stage. For this, Massachusetts-based Klar, who opened with pieces from his lilting, nostalgic new release Crescent Street Blues, deserves a huge nod. His lyrics (“this is for lovers in the night / she said, don’t treat me cruel just kiss me kind / won’t you tell me that joke again / well remember once when we were friends”) are sung with exactly the right amounts of whine and vocal splintering, and speak to an earlier time when everything seemed a little easier.
And we can all get on board with that.
To find out more about events at the Outer Space, visit their website.