Concert Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter @ The Birchmere (10/30/18)

Mary Chapin Carpenter at Real World Studios
Mary Chapin Carpenter at Real World Studios (Photo Credit: Ethan Johns)

Celebrating 30 years of country and folk music mastery, Mary Chapin Carpenter returned to The Birchmere for two sold out shows on October 29 and 30th!

I was able to catch the second night’s show, and arrived just as the openers, Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards, started harmonizing and strumming, warming up the 500 or so members of the eager crowd nicely for Mary’s set. Given the close quarters of the tables, and that mine was at the front, I trust any distraction from my being seated didn’t minimize the enjoyment of those nearby.

After Laura and her band of three danced off stage, Mary Chapin Carpenter and her band of four kicked off the coming journey of music and stories and audience questions with “Why Shouldn’t We”, the lyrics almost tempting us to believe in the power of her songs. We believed.

Later “The Moon and St. Christopher” is a heart-felt ballad of hope and belief and growing up, wrapped in a beautiful glow of strings (upright bass) and keys (piano).

Mary Chapin Carpenter was in her singing and songwriting peak during the mid-90’s, also the time I was tuned in to the country music stations that played her songs, like the Lucinda Williams penned “Passionate Kisses” or “Down at the Twist and Shout” or “I Feel Lucky”, all of which she performed during her 16-song set.

No question she’s still been busy, releasing 15 albums in her 30-year career. She also used to play in Washington, DC clubs in her early years, as she lived in Virginia for a time. She told the crowd that The Birchmere ‘is really near and dear to my heart, I’ve been playing here for years, wherever it’s located.’ Speaking of which, The Birchmere has been around for 52 years itself, and is in its third location in Alexandria.

Mary wryly joked after having been reminded she’d been playing for 30 years, she had to ‘lie down and take a nap.’ She had a huge affinity for her backing band, none of which were napping, as she mentioned and thanked them on multiple occasions. The musicians joining her on this tour, which is nearing its end, were Don Dixon on bass, Nate Barnes on drums (hiding behind some protective Plexiglas), Johnny Duke on guitar, and Jon Carroll (from DC) on piano.

She took questions towards the end of the show and someone in the crowd wondered about her guitars, it turns out that they are custom built by Rockbridge Guitar Company (of Virginia), each with an image of the windmill at the Virginia house she lived in. Other questions posed were ‘Do you believe in love?’ (Mary: ‘More than anything else.’), ‘Do you still have the shirt? (referring to the song “The Shirt”)’ (Mary: ‘No unfortunately, it was something I wore in high school and is long gone.’) She also regaled us with a bad question from when she was starting out, ‘Is that a real song, or did you write it?’ (Mary (when introducing “The Shirt”): ‘This is a real song, AND I wrote it!’)

Midway through, “John Doe No. 24” began with the story that gave life to the song, taken from an Obituary for John Doe No. 24, who was a deaf and blind man who spend his remaining years in institutions. She found the story heartbreaking, yet inspiring, and had to know more, which of course always leads to a song (presumably). As she glided over the lyrics and the band’s instruments reached our ears, the song became heartbreaking and inspiring for us listening as well.

Near the end of the main set she performed “I Take My Chances”, about not playing life safe, something you cannot do if you want to last 30 years in the music industry.

Mary just released her newest album, Sometimes Just The Sky, which celebrates her career with re-imagined songs from all of her previous albums, plus the self-titled track she ended the main set with, a hauntingly beautiful, violin heavy look at longing for something not attained.

After a huge standing ovation, Mary came back sporting funky sunglasses (Halloween, after all), joined by Laura Cortese (along with the Dance Cards, proving their namesake) for two more songs, “Down at the Twist and Shout” and “The Hard Way”, a dance friendly excuse for everyone on stage to enjoy themselves, and for those in the audience, now standing, wondering if we were allowed to hop on the tables to join the dancing (presumably).

Take a chance and head over to the Twist and Shout, and after a bit of dancing, pick up a copy of her new album, Sometimes Just The Sky. That’s something you can believe in.

Why Shouldn’t We
Why Walk When You Can Fly
Stones in the Road
The Moon and St. Christopher
Naked to the Eye
Passionate Kisses (Lucinda Williams cover)
The Bug (Dire Straits cover)
This Shirt
This is Love
John Doe No. 24
Shut Up and Kiss Me
I Feel Lucky
I Take My Chances
He Thinks He’ll Keep Her
Sometimes Just The Sky

Down at the Twist and Shout
The Hard Way

Author: Jeremy Bailey

Writer and editor living in Washington, D.C.

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