Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mary McCaslin

I had the rare opportunity to catch a modest but enjoyable East Coast performance by California-based singer-songwriter Mary McCaslin in Herndon, Virginia. The Folk Club of Reston-Herndon sponsored this event as part of a series of small concerts they hold each year in the side room of a neighborhood Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Factory, located in a run-down, half-vacant, 60s-era strip mall in downtown Herndon. The long narrow room was filled to capacity with about 60 people, mostly members of the folk club.

The show began with three short but refreshingly offbeat open mike performances that included an a capella French tune sung by a six year old girl. Mary hit the "stage" around 7:30 and her first set was over shortly after 8 PM. After a 15 minute intermission, she returned for a second set of roughly the same length. While the show was noticeably short, I felt that I easily got my money's worth--after all, the $10 ticket cost less than the price of a drink in most New York clubs. I also appreciated the down home atmosphere and overall intimacy of the venue.

Mary's setlist was thematically and structurally similar to a typical Mary McCaslin album. It featured a few of her own songs mixed with those of other singer-songwriters such as her late husband and co-performer Jim Ringer. She also sang a couple of Western-themed 1940s standards such as "Don't Fence Me In" and "Ghost Riders In The Sky." Mary opened the show with a tribute to "yuppie-free" Oildale, California, the town just north of Bakersfield that was the birthplace of Merle Haggard. This was one of several songs about California, which evidently continues to be her favorite subject.

I was struck by the clarity and precision of Mary's rhythm guitar accompaniment that projected from her barely-amplified Larrivee acoustic guitar. I also found that her engaging, matter-of-fact singing style sounds much the same as it does on her classic records. As expected, Mary played in several different open major and minor tunings, switching between them in a matter of seconds. Her second set featured a cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird," which she sang to her own clawhammer banjo accompaniment, demonstrating her considerable skill at rearranging/re-imagining classic pop songs. If you think "Blackbird" is a strange choice for a banjo tune, you should hear her version of "Pinball Wizard" from her Old Friends LP.

After the performance was over, Mary sat at a small table signing CDs. As she signed my records, I told her that I had been to Oildale and had caught one of Red Simpson's Monday night performances at Trout's Nightclub. She reacted with enthusiasm to the name Red Simpson, reciting the opening line to Red's biggest hit "Hello, I'm a Truck." (Appropriately enough, that line is "Hello, I'm a truck.") We talked a bit about Trout's and Buck Owens' Crystal Palace and discovered, not surprisingly, that we both prefer Trout's, which is really the last remaining true honktonk in the Bakersfield area. There wasn't much room to stand and talk, so I thanked her for signing my records and went on my way.

No comments:

Post a Comment