Lori McKenna with Mark Erelli

Friday, October 5, 2012

One Longfellow Square, Portland, Maine

I met my dear friend Shaun on our first night of our first year at Bowdoin College. He’s back in town teaching there for the year, and I’m so excited to have another concert buddy for the duration! We met up in Brunswick after a long week and trekked down to Portland for margaritas and Mexican food (including a fish taco debacle) before the show at One Longfellow Square. It was also Portland’s First Friday Art Walk, so we enjoyed the bustling, vibrant sidewalks full of people and arts in downtown on our way.

I was not at all surprised that OLS was packed for Lori McKenna. We struggled to find seats, but landed on the far edge of the fourth row—probably the farthest from the stage I’ve ever been at OLS. Mark Erelli took the stage soon after we arrived. The last time I saw him was last December at OLS sharing the stage with Jeffrey Foucault. It had been ages since I’d seen Lori—more than six years, in fact. I had to look it up, but I last saw her with Mark in April of 2006 at Chicky’s Fine Diner in Westbrook. It had been far too long.

Bates College alumnus Mark Erelli established himself as a local (or maybe a former local?) by opening with his lovely song, “Congress Street,” which One Longfellow sits on. He told us about his apartment in Portland’s East End (truthfully just off of Congress Street) where he wrote a lot of songs back in the day. He joked that he didn’t usually give so much autobiographical information because made up stories are more fun. He said he lived there with his wife while she was in graduate school and he was bringing home the bacon (or bacon bits, more likely). He wrote “Five Beer Moon” in that apartment “on Munjoy Hill,” too.

Mark Erelli

Mark rocked out a bit on “Basement Days,” and welcomed us to use our iPhone lighter app anytime we felt moved during the show. Mark was warm and comfortable with us. He played a great new song for us that I really liked. He told us he wanted us to take his music home, so his albums were “pay what you can,” but he clarified that “free is not a price.” He joked that there was also no upper limit to what you might pay for his albums since “some people who own houses on the Western Prom might be here.” He was charming and sounded great. Mark only played a handful of songs because, as we were to find out, he would share the stage with Lori for the rest of the night. He wrapped his set with “Everything in Ruin” and we took a short break between sets.

Lori McKenna took the stage and looked just as I remembered her—she hasn’t aged at all and could absolutely still pass as a twenty something. Mark joined her and it became clear that we’d enjoy them as a duo for the evening. I think Lori’s voice is amazing—deep, raspy, and strong. I can pick out her distinctive voice as easily as Emmylou Harris’ or Adele’s. Her music is rooted in her life experiences—being married to someone for a long time, having five kids, living in a small town, and being on the road. There’s an autobiography and genuineness running through her music that makes it wholly relatable. Her music is so relatable, in fact, that many other artists have recorded her songs. Faith Hill, Alison Krauss, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, and Carrie Underwood are just some of the people who’ve sung Lori’s songs. I remember seeing Lori singing one of her songs on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Faith Hill years ago, too.

Lori McKenna and Mark Erelli

I wish I had a better handle on song titles. I listen to music so much in the car that I rarely know what songs are called, but I’ll estimate. Early in her set, Lori and Mark played “Your Next Lover” that includes the sad lyrics “I stood and watched all the stars fade right there from your eyes.” “Stealing Kisses” is also sad—about a young love that’s changed. It goes, “I was stealing kisses from a boy/Now I’m begging affection from a man/In my housedress don’t you know who I am/Don’t you know who I am/Standing in your kitchen/It’s late enough your husband’s dinner is cold/So you wrap it up and leave it for him on the stove/It’s probably the traffic again/Or another important meeting.” Mark sounded great on mandolin on that song.

Before she played “Witness to Your Life,” a song about a wedding, Lori told us that her 24th wedding anniversary is next month and clarified that it was 24 years with the same person, and consecutively. Lori told us about her new Honda Pilot (she’s said goodbye to her famous touring minivan) and how since it has Bluetooth technology people actually call her car to talk to her. She said she and Mark listened to her daughter crying on the car/phone on the drive up because her brother was literally completely out of gas and couldn’t drive her to gymnastics. They figured out a plan. This openness is part of what I like about Lori’s live show. She is a real person with stories and struggles that she shares in story and in song. She easily creates a sense of communal understanding and closeness.

Lori also told us about her fabulous songwriting group called “The Love Junkies.” Three women—one in her thirties, one in her forties, and one in her fifties—who have never been married, have been married for a long time, and who have been married many times—gather to drink wine and write songs in Nashville. They draw from their diversity of life experiences and have a great time. They (or more specifically, the other two women) got the idea for their group name from an article in a magazine where an actress was quoted as saying that falling in love is like being drunk.

Lori said she’s about to record in Boston and Mark will be producing. I was reminded of Bono during her set. Bono uses a teleprompter that scrolls the lyrics during his live shows and Lori had a binder with each song in it. It’s in the same ballpark, anyhow. One of the songs she’ll record is an old song “How Romantic Is That?” about being with someone for a long time and still being in love. There was a gaggle of excited lady groupies in the audience, and they seemed particularly excited to hear that news.

Lori spends a lot of time writing with other artists, especially in Nashville, and joked with us about how she tries to cover up her thick Stoughton, Massachusetts accent, but that it comes out at home and when she’s on the phone with her family. Lori was so charming, and she was also very complimentary of Mark and his performance. She said it sounded like we were screaming for Justin Bieber during Mark’s set. Mark had just toured in Texas and wasn’t sure what stories to tell, so Lori had offered to let him use her stories about the minivan and yoga pants.

I loved “Buy this Town,” a song I read almost didn’t make it onto Lori’s newest album, Lorraine, because she wrote it just after the recording process was over. It’s a bittersweet song about love and small town life—“If I could buy this town/I’d keep the Friday night bleachers full of kids falling in love/And unlikely believers and the firefighters are there/Because their kid’s in the game/And we don’t win too often but that ain’t why we came.”

Lori talked about writing a song on a miniature piano her sister found that she doesn’t know how to play but that Mark helped her fix up. She told us about a recent trip to Nashville to write with Little Big Town and played a couple of the songs they wrote together, “Sober” and “Your Side of the Bed.” A reporter from the Boston Globe accompanied her on the trip and ended up sitting in for the entire writing session because everyone in Little Big Town was so welcoming. Here’s the finished article. I liked the lyrics of “Your Side of the Bed” a lot, even if they’re sad. “Tell me how/How you’d get so far away?/Are you sleeping with your own regrets/On your side of the bed.” My friends often joke when we’re in the car together that I like sad music. I know they’re right.

Lori is such a great storyteller on stage, and she was so sweet to us. She thanked us again and again for showing up and told us we were the nicest people and that she could tell she liked every one of us. Her songwriting advice was that you’ve got to write for yourself because writing to fit someone else’s wishes is too complicated. As a professional songwriter, I trust her judgment.

She told us that one of my favorite LM songs, “Make Every Word Hurt,” was actually supposed to be an upbeat song. It’s not, which is probably when I love it so much. It’s soul crushing, actually. She and Mark sang beautiful harmonies on the song, too. Here is the chorus:  “But whatever you do/For whatever its worth/If you’re gonna tear my world apart/Then I’d prefer/Don’t leave me confused/Don’t let the lines blur/If you’re gonna tell me/You don’t love me anymore/Make every word hurt.” Also, amen to that message.

“Unglamorous” was up next—an upbeat song and I still like it—and Lori and Mark had a little guitar jam session during it that sounded great. Lori talked about her new EP Heart Shaped Bullet Hole coming out a few days after the show. She closed her set with “Still Down Here,” but we asked for another song and so she left us with her beloved Tom Petty’s “Room at the Top.” We sang along a little bit, too, and it was a great way to close a great night of storytelling and music.

I’d chatted throughout the night a little bit with an older woman sitting in front of me who was there with her husband and a couple of friends to celebrate her birthday. At the end of the night, she turned to me and said, “I think I was at the wrong show!” She had mistaken Lori McKenna for someone else whose albums she owns (she couldn’t figure out the name of the person who she thought she was going to be seeing, either). She said she loved Lori McKenna, though, and that it was a happy accident. So cute!

Thanks for a great night, Lori and Mark!




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