Jan 042009

Last night Robin and I went with some friends to hear Andrew McKnight at the Industrial Strength Theater in Herndon VA. What a great performance.

I had never been in the theater before, though I have lived right around the corner for ten years. I had heard that it was a spartan setup with metal bleachers for the audience. Maybe that was a previous decor, I don’t know; the seating was good ol’ cushy theater seats, just as comfortable as you would like. The room was small but had great acoustics. The house lights stayed on throughout the show, but I don’t know if that is how they always do things there. Most performances are theatrical, done by the Elden Street Players.

Now, the music. Andrew did a solo, totally unplugged performance. The premise was that he would spend time telling stories about his songs that were a little more expansive than the usual rehearsed intros and jokes. He is a good talker for sure, and he had no shyness telling us about his travels around the country for gigs, his toddling dughter, or his father’s love of jazz music. Andrew writes songs in the neighborhood of Bruce Springsteen, so there are often a lot of good stories going on behind the tunes.

Andrew’s songs are serious and stirring. He captures a memorable story in a standard song format, which is like capturing a biography in a fifteen-page short story. His “Dancing In the Rain” became a favorite for both Robin and me the first time we each heard it at one of Andrew’s gigs.

His song “Walk In These Shoes” always makes me cry, with its pounding emotions about people who struggle to get into our country because there is nothing else for them to do. I understand the political problems going on around this issue, but I also understand that there are kids who grow up in America without paper work and then can’t go to college or get a decent job. And that is an awful way to become an adult. Parents take their kids away from poverty and violence so they can come here to maybe have a chance at a quieter life, and these kids are excluded after living here for fifteen or twenty years. Morality or whatever, it is a sad side of our world where nation-building in the name of equality is more important than putting true equality into action. So I cry every time I hear this song, for those kids who are left out.

Andrew has a new take on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” that I have heard him do three times over the past year. The first two times the tune didn’t really grab me, and my mind wandered a bit. Last night his slide guitar playing on this tune really stood out for me. It was not the primitive, emotional outburst that I really like in a bottleneck blues thing. But the quiet, gentle notes on the guitar made a nice conversation with the vocals.

I was surprised in this unplugged theater setup that Andrew seemed to sing without totally belting out. He sang in his usual breathy, sweet voice, and sometimes even whispered. If I were in a room like that, I would just belt it out like a fool. Maybe something for me to learn here. Of course I’m usually singing loud and more loud without exactly staying on top of my intonation and enunciation.

So there, I’m a big fan. Have been since I first heard Andrew’s songs. If you haven’t seen Andrew before, make a point of it. Very good stuff.

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