A rowdy, enthusiastic crowd occupied the 7th Street Entry during Jennifer O’Connor’s Tuesday night performance. They weren’t there for her, though—they were there for the bar, having filed out of the First Ave mainroom after the TV on the Radio show ended. As the several of us who were actually there to see the Brooklyn singer-songwriter huddled at the tables near the stage, the talking and laughing from the bar threatened to drown out O’Connor’s quieter numbers. Most performers pay their dues before being written up in The New Yorker—but sometimes it works the other way around.
As my friend Bettina pointed out while we listened to O’Connor’s new disc Here With Me before the show, O’Connor’s working in a crowded field of tough-but-vulnerable folk-country women: from Patsy Cline down through Buffy Sainte-Marie and Rosanne Cash. To triangulate O’Connor’s place in this cosmos, you’d have to take bearings at the urban coffee-shop sound of Mary Chapin-Carpenter, the polished rock of Kathleen Edwards (whose voice and O’Connor’s are converging uncannily), and the grit of Gillian Welch. If that’s a little complicated, you could just listen to O’Connor’s four LPs—starting with her atmospheric 2006 release Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars.
There’s a gift that certain singer-songwriters have: the ability to write and perform a story-song that makes time stop. Some of the big names have it (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen) and some of them don’t (Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne). Duluth’s Charlie Parr has it (listen to “Bethlehem” or “Cheap Wine” from 2005’s Rooster), and so does O’Connor. Far be it from me to judge the heart of another, but those noisy bargoers who were unmoved by O’Connor’s performance of “Valley Road ‘86”? I’ll bet when they were kids, they shot stray cats with BB guns.
Recordings don’t do justice to the power of O’Connor’s voice and aggressive rhythm guitar (she was accompanied by bassist Michael Brodlieb and drummer Jon Langmead). Her eyes rolled back and her feet swung under her chair as she wrapped herself around her guitar and performed her concise, pithy rockers. Highlights of the set were a surging “Highway Miles,” from the new record, and Over the Mountain opener “Century Estates,” reworked in a higher key. At the encore, O’Connor apologized for not having practiced “Achin’ to Be,” a Replacements classic she covered as a bonus track available with the iTunes version of Here With Me. “Here, of all places,” she admitted, “I should have known to have that one ready. Next time, I promise.”
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
|Also in the Daily Planet, read Jay Gabler’s fall music preview.|