Sunday, August 4, 2019
Port City Music Hall, Portland, Maine
I’ve been seeing fewer and fewer shows these days. There are two reasons for the lack of live music in my life. The first is that my partner works in theater and I’ve seen 26 plays in the last year alone. The heart of the matter, though, is that audiences seem to be more and more full of people lacking basic concert etiquette these days, and it’s just not fun to go to concerts when people in the audience push, talk non-stop, and record the whole show through their phone screen. I’ve lost my patience with it, so I’m being a lot more picky about the shows I am choosing to attend. I am primarily attending seated shows, where pushing is basically impossible, because people can’t show up late and steal your chair. All of these conscious decisions absolutely melted away from my anxious concert-going brain on Sunday night, though, and I am so grateful for it.
Lori McKenna and her band came to Port City Music Hall to play her album, Bittertown, on its 15th anniversary, and it was a GA seated show. I showed up just after the doors opened (after stopping on Washington Avenue to support Hannah Daman’s [of Sibylline] new delicious maple creemee food truck venture), and found an empty second row center seat. I was blown away by the show in every sense and was so grateful to my fellow concert-goers who were attentive and came to listen. It was perfect and was such an unexpected joy.
Hailey Whitters took the stage in vintage overalls Lori McKenna gave her, and she just blew me away. I try to never miss an opening act, and Hailey exemplifies the reason why. You just never know who you might fall in love with. Hailey is 29 and from a small town in Iowa. She’s been living in Nashville–co-writing and performing–for 12 years, and she has a voice and songs with lyrics that pierced me in the heart. I was hit right in the feels by “The Days” and “Heartland.” Hailey told us she wrote “Ten Year Town” with fellow songwriter Brandy Clark about feeling low and broken hearted by Nashville and the music industry and being away from home for ten years and not having a lot to show for it. She’d just found out she was going to get to play the Grand Ole Opry later in the week because of that song and told us, “if you have a dream and you feel like giving up–don’t.” I laughed and cried moments apart while she sang “Janice and the Hotel Bar.” Her album, The Dream, is due to be released later this year and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I am so sure Hailey’s on the cusp of getting the recognition she’s worked so hard for. Check her out in Rolling Stone.
I heard a couple of women behind me talking about music during the break, so I turned around and they kindly let me join the conversation. I enjoyed the chat with Jo, who owns Cup of Joe in Portsmouth (Jo–I am listening to Erick Baker on repeat right now!), and Fiona from Bait Bag, a feminist punk trio from North Haven I’d heard of because my friend Aimsel is nuts for them.
Lori McKenna came to the stage with her band–Jamie Edwards, John Sands, Paul Kochanski, and Lyle Brewer–after a long break. She told us that Bittertown came out three days after her son David was born. Lori played the entire album straight through and she told us the story behind each and every song. It was my concert dream! She joked that she had to look most of the songs up on Google to have other people teach her how to play them again. She made us laugh a lot all night long. She said, “I have five children and they only really care about whether or not they’re going to get fed after school when they come home and I’m writing a song at the table in my sweatpants.” I loved hearing about the songs from Lori. She told us she could tell when she learned certain things about her own life and when she learned how to play certain chord progressions and with a drummer. We were in the palm of her hand all night, and I remember thinking about halfway through her set that I hadn’t heard a peep from anywhere in the room the whole set. We were all there together to hear these stories, and that really meant something to me. So, it made me laugh even more when Lori told us, “this is a master class in the worst things you can say before or after songs,” because she did everything so right, from start to finish.
We laughed throughout the evening, but especially when Lori told us about her dad, Frank Giroux, who worked for Boston Edison for 42 years and gave his six children a hard time when they didn’t turn off the lights at home. He’d say, “I work for the electric company, I don’t own the electric company.” She joked, “I can’t get away from these utility people. My husband works for the gas company in the maps and records department, which is the name of my publishing company” and she made us promise to call Dig Safe and wait two days for Gene McKenna to see if he sprays a G or does not spray a G in your yard before you dig even a little hole to put up a new mailbox.”
I was particularly glad to hear a favorite Lori McKenna song, “If You Ask,” in person again. I think I’ve only seen Lori three times live–once in 2006 and again in 2012. All three times have been such a pleasure. She is the best of the best.
Lori’s high school in Stoughton, Massachusetts is about to be torn down, so her last two kids will attend the brand new Stoughton High School that’s been built adjacent to the old one that’s inspired so much of her songwriting. She told us there was never a timeframe that would have made sense for her and Gene to move away, so they stayed put and can walk to her dad’s house and the house her husband Gene grew up in.
Lori said that a lot of songwriting is writing songs that no one ever hears, so she was especially grateful to get to play songs for an audience. She told us that she’d talked about that aspect of songwriting with Liz Rose and Hillary Lidnsey on Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Record. They wrote an absolutely stunning song together inspired by David Letterman, who on a Netflix special interviewing Howard Stern, said “my son is 14 years old. What’s the world going to be like when he’s my age?” It inspired “When You’re My Age,” which had the audience in tears.
Lori played “Humble & Kind” and then Hailey joined her on stage for “Girl Crush” and “Happy People.” Lori told us that they first time she and Hailey ever wrote a song together she showed up in Stoughton and wanted to write a song called “Happy People.” Lori said that the best parts of the song came from Hailey–especially the parts about how we affect one another. Lori said “It’s the happiest damn song I’ve ever helped write, so we’ll leave you with this and I hope you’re the happiest people we know.” I was a whole lot happier after this show, for sure! Thank you Lori! I sure hope you’ll come back to Maine, too, Hailey!