Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
efore she even started her annual holiday season gig at the venerated club, Lori McKenna told the sold-out crowd she remembered holding a CD release party for her very first album, "Paper Wings and Halo" 18 years ago and was shocked when she found out that, too, was SRO. "I didn't have that big a family," McKenna joked, admitting she was super nervous at the time.
But here she was for about the 13th year running at this holiday gig at Passim after the release of another strong album of her own and lots of good things happening to her on the Nashville songwriting front.
The first of two shows offered a retrospective of her career with McKenna playing a song or two from each of her releases, starting with "Paper Wings and Halo" and concluding with July's "The Tree."
Matter of fact, about the only thing that's changed is McKenna's perspective on line - not exactly a surprise given that she just turned 50 on Thursday.
On the second song of the night, "Fireflies," from her "Pieces of Me" and a hit for Faith Hill (she and hubby Tim McGraw really helped bring attention to McKenna), the suburban Boston native, who still lives there with her plumber husband and at least some of their six children, sings "I was taught to dream."
That's a good thing for McKenna and her fans. She has managed to maintain a songwriting career that has only been on the uptick for awhile with her name on a lot of co-writes in Nashville recorded by the likes of Carrie Underwood and the "A Star is Born" soundtrack, while being able to release high quality albums of her own every two years and tour behind it.
In concert, McKenna is pretty much tried and true. She's funny, engaging, witty (on this night, after picking the wrong guitar, she lamented that she looked down to realize that and then wondered if anybody in the crowd had that happen while at their jobs looking down to wonder what pants they were wearing. No takers to McKenna's surprise, leading to subsequent references about that fact), and, oh yes, a very fine songwriter of pictures and emotions, while being a good singer.
McKenna threw a few recent chestnuts of her songwriting success - the Grammy winning "Humble and Kind," made famous by Tim McGraw, and closing with the encore song (technically not as she never left the stage) and "Girl Crush," a megahit for Little Big Town. Many times, it's totally understandable why the songwriter remains that and not a performer. Not so with McKenna.
A self-described downer of a songwriter, McKenna talked about her evolution as a songwriter before plying into "The Bird and the Rifle." She said she was "trying to figure out if I got happier. I figured out a few more chords." McKenna went on to say that she now writes about issues "I wasn't concerned about 20 years ago."
As if to emphasize the aging thing, McKenna commented how happy she was that her father came to her surprise 50th birthday a few nights before playing the humorously titled "People Get Old."
McKenna then went the other way with "Young and Angry Again" from "The Tree" and the unrecorded "When You're My Age," inspired by her high school-age daughter with the closing words "time grows faster than you think/you just can't see it when you're young."
There's no doubt about. McKenna has aged most gracefully as a singer and songwriter, but who's to say that she has even reached her prime?