This gig was the last of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s UK tour, and was also a first weekend highlight for the inaugural City Roots festival running across many venues in Cambridge as a week-long winter spin-off from the annual Cambridge Folk Festival. All the big gigs for this festival are at the centrally situated Corn Exchange which – unlike the Junction (the only other large venue in town) – is well set up for large seated audiences. It’s an odd venue, high roofed and narrow – which can lead to performers, like opening act Bella Hardy, seeming a long way away and slightly lost on the stage. Bella Hardy has built an enviable reputation for creating modern folk songs – and her Herring Girl appearing as the second song of her set is still a striking song. However, with just Ian Thompson accompanying on guitar, the sound was generally not as rich as on her recent albums which have featured a Sam Lee like multi-layering of instruments. There’s also – on the evidence of this short set – been a move towards more direct political commentary on her new album. Her song Hey Sam expresses the wish that the five year old translator for her Romanian neighbours doesn’t get to read newspaper headlines blaming the country’s ills directly on him. Jolly Good luck to the girl who loves a soldier – a delicate whispery musical construction – is an anti-war song ostensibly linked to the Great War but actually conveying universal themes whilst a new song from the upcoming album reflects on the repeating of lessons not learnt from history. It’s understandable that, well into her second decade in music, Bella Hardy should want to tackle meatier subjects but it did feel as if something of her distinctive authorship has been lost to a more difficult to distinguish international folk tinged singer-songwriter persona. Hopefully the new album will prove otherwise when it appears later this year.
Mary Chapin Carpenter had, including herself on acoustic guitar, just a four piece band – piano, electric guitar and a simple two-drum setup drummer/percussionist. This stripped back backing suits what she refers to as an intimate setting – which considering the Corn Exchange has a capacity in the thousands says a lot about the size of crowd she is used to pulling in. A simple back-lit stage draping and a string of bare lights over the stage just served to emphasise this low-key performance and, with a personality which excludes charm and inspires the sharing of confidences, Mary Chapin Carpenter succeeded in pulling the audience in close – it’s not quite sitting on her back porch looking out over the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it isn’t far off. She also has a new album out, and this gig
is strongly built around this – which is fine as The Things That We Are Made Of is a wonderful album full of beautifully crafted and emotionally engaging songs. Songs of regret, songs of love, songs of hope and looking to the future, and, yes, songs tinged with despair.
She opened her set with an older song – the percussively folk flecked Why walk when you can fly, which was immediately captivating with its blend of gentle piano led accompaniment to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s breathlessly throaty, but oh so warm, vocals. In its lyrics it offers an optimistic hope for the future – “why take when you could be giving / Why watch as the world goes by / It’s a hard enough life to be living / Why walk when you can fly” – it’s a bulwark against what Carpenter refers to as “the freak show back home” as is new song Something Tamed Something Wild. Revelling in an easy poetry it carries a message of strength built through hard experiences, of love found and lost – deceptively simple it’s full of rich images that ring true for anyone who has racked up enough years “Here’s a shoebox full of letters bound up neatly with some twine / Each one was like a diamond, now the jewel is lost to time”. And if this is all starting to sound just a little serious, there was a sucker punch of a honky-tonking Shut Up And Kiss Me shot through with a bluesy slide guitar which steered in a more upbeat direction – with a follow on of a wonderfully adapted Stones In the Road featuring a new verse warning against demagogues to add to her tale of political awakening. Carpenter ruefully admits that it’s a song she “never imagined would still be relevant”.
Mary Chapin Carpenter has an easy manner, happy to share details of her life, leading on one occasion to an unfortunate juxtaposition of mental images. Having told us how she is looking forward to getting home to the Blue Ridge Mountains after the tour, she confides that she’ll greet her cats and dog with kisses on the lips – then launches into the next song. At its conclusions she admits that she probably could have picked a better anecdote to preface a rendition of Lucinda Williams’ Passionate Kisses. This aside though the set is beautifully crafted with smooth changes of tempo, drawing down of the band to just Mary Chapin Carpenter and piano accompaniment and then further yet leaving her alone on stage before building back up to a higher energy rocking conclusion. It is slick – but it is skilfully so, enhancing the experience rather than feeling overly contrived. The new material really is as good as anything she’s produced before – Livingstone is drawn from her memory of a cross-country drive to see a friend who was dying, there’s an ambiguity injected into the lyrics but it’s clearly about an important ending. And it is shot through with a bitter sense of sadness, but it’s tender and reflective and loving as well – which makes all its sadness ok, or at least bearable, as Carpenter stands alone on the stage the words flowing out across the room.
The evening closed out with the band demonstrating that they can go all out and rock – I feel Lucky is just a good time workout, and it’s no coincidence that it’s followed up with I take my chances, which really should have had the audience up and dancing. It does give the band a chance to show off their chops in individual solos, as does the put down on being taken for granted encore, as Mary Chapin Carpenter takes us from “She makes his coffee, she makes his bed / She does the laundry, she keeps him fed / When she was twenty-one she wore her mother’s lace / She said “forever” with a smile upon her face” to “When she was thirty-six she met him at their door / She said I’m sorry, I don’t love you anymore “. There’s no doubting her versatility, and there’s no doubting that Mary Chapin Carpenter is a fantastic artist live – what a performer for the opening weekend of a new festival, here’s hoping she’s back again next year!