Despite yet another Wisconsin snowstorm, a small crowed braved the weather to see Erin McKeown (that’s mc-kew’n) at Madison’s High Noon Saloon. Clad in a bright orange suit and energetic as always, McKeown surprised the crowd by opening not with a song from her new release, Manifestra, but with 2005’s “Aspera Per Aspera”. She followed it up with another song before greeting the crowd politely and introducing her band, comprised of a drummer and a brass-and-keyboard player - an intriguing setup for an artist known mostly as a folk singer.
After that, McKeown delved into new material, playing “The Politician”. Once the song was finished, she chastised herself for forgetting to dedicate it to despotic Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. She noted that she had been dedicating it to a different politician in every town and had been waiting to play Madison so she could dedicate it to Walker. This led perfectly into the next track (and album single), “The Jailer”.
McKeown announced that she had just returned from England the previous day and was feeling the effects of jet-lag. She said the show would be “loose” because of that, and that she was afraid to talk because she didn’t want to say something stupid. She needn’t have worried, for her banter was just as lively and fun as ever. After another song, she announced the theme of the album as being, “internal change becoming external.”
This is indeed a departure for McKeown, who has been known for light-hearted romps like “Queen of Quiet”, “La Petite Morte”, and “Rhode Island is Famous for You” - songs that didn’t make an appearance. Though her catalog has been varied and even included Sing You Sinners!, an album full of old standards. But McKeown has never been as straightforwardly political as she is on Manifestra, on which she even co-wrote and sang a song with Rachel Maddow.
While many political singer-songwriters seem to be pegged as overly serious and dour, McKeown knows how to keep a crow interested, even in her jet-lagged state. And that paid off, as the small crowd was enthusiastic and enjoyed the new material as much as her older songs. During one song, McKeown knelt at the side of the stage as her drummer and sax player took the lead for a bit before she joined in with her guitar. Her voice was somewhat overpowered by the other instruments, but this was the only sound glitch.
“Histories” was next up on the setlist as McKeown took over the keyboard, announcing again the theme of Manifestra, which she defined this time as “electric political gospel.” Once “Histories” finished, she announced that after so many songs from the new record, she would delve into older material. “This one is from 1908,” she quipped breezily, before starting “James!”. After the song, her band mates left McKeown alone at the keyboard. Before the title track from Hundreds of Lions, McKeown commented that this song hadn’t gone over so well in Glasgow, where no one laughed despite it being full of “cross-cultural zingers.”
McKeown improv-ed on a funny mess of a song, calling out “hello, jet lag!” at intervals. Though she warbled through forgotten lyrics, the tone was light and funny, and no one seemed to mind the botched song. She then rolled seamlessly into “Cou-Cou”, a song she delivered en français with plenty of whistling. She then asked the crowd if they were familiar with Mrs. Miller, and encouraged everyone to Google Mrs. Miller on their phones, saying that would be representative of her next album.
Her band mates returned for a few more songs, including another 2005 song, “We Are More”. After a 13-song set, McKeown returned for a paltry one-song encore - an extended version of Manifestra’s title track. Whether a venue curfew or her fatigue was responsible for the lack of a longer encore, the audience seemed satisfied.
While McKeown’s songwriting took a different direction on her latest record, it was refreshing to see that she was as lively and entertaining as ever. One can only hope that it will pay off in sales of her new, crowd-funded album, along with attendance at her surprising and simply fun shows.