Kris Delmhorst finds comfort at Club Passim

A review of Kris Delmhorst at Club Passim on Ferbruary 12, 2009

, Contributing Writer

Long-time local favorite Kris Delmhorst played a relaxed set at Club Passim on Thursday night, opening with a quick tour through her recent album Shotgun Singer and then moving through a selection of material mostly from her more recent albums.

She started out by noting that the venue is one she’s very familiar with. "I feel very much at home here – sometimes dangerously so" is what she said, and while I think we were in no danger, she did seem quite at ease with a crowd that has been with her, in some cases, for her whole career.

It wasn’t just because of the crowd that she felt comfortable, though. In the years since she began touring seriously as a national act, Delmhorst has learned some things about performance, and has learned how to inhabit her songs, partly because she has learned to write songs that she can comfortably inhabit. She has discovered her way of doing things, and she has discovered that doing things her way gets a better response than trying to give the audience what she thinks it wants. Now, she approaches the performance from an emotional center that is entirely hers, and she brings the audience to her. This is a lesson that many songwriters could benefit greatly from.

After beginnning with a song so new that she called it unfinished (it was a little reminiscent of "One Monkey" from Gillian Welch’s Soul Journey), Delmhorst devoted the first portion of her set to songs from Shotgun Singer, playing about half of the songs from that record before moving on to older material. The contrast between the new and older material is striking. Since she hit her stride on 2003′ Songs for a Hurricane, Delmhorst has shown herself an excellent singer and lyricist, but on the songs from her new album she shows a marked evolution in her melodic writing. The melodies on the album have begun to reach into new territory, one closer to Richard Rogers (although without Larry Hart’s urbane cynicism). While not complicated or especially daring, they are haunting and Delmhorst knows how to give them a twist here and there to keep your attention. This, combined with a slinky phrasing and a well-developed sense of dynamics give the impression of the old standards, and one can easily imagine Chet Baker or Stan Getz wanting to take a crack at a song like "Blue Adeline" or "1,000 Reasons".& & &

Lyrically, she’s hitting some good notes as well, although there were a few clinkers here and there. "To the Wire" felt like a return to a less practiced period in her writing, with unfortunately shoehorned rhymes ("Don’t know why this doesn’t fit/I try and try still I can’t make it") and cliches ("Are you the dance or the dancer"), but this stood out as a marked contrast to the overall high standard she’s set for herself. She hits high marks on all levels: her individual lines are well-made for singing (notice the assonance running through this verse of "Birds of Belfast":& "The field grew wild all that buzzing summer/We dozed a while, woke a little younger/Hung your clothes, waited on the weather/Thorn and rose twine and grow together") and the images hang together in generally consistent and coherent metaphors (as in "Hurricane" or "Firefly").

But more than this, the emotional resonance of the whole rings true. The technical skills of constructing a verse that is phonologically and semantically cohesive are necessary, but not sufficient to writing a great song. They are the tools that a writer uses to produce the moments when a well chosen word completes a well crafted image on a perfect note, and the listener’s pysche rings like a bell. But in order for that moment to happen, a writer needs to have something to communicate with that word, that image, and that note, and it needs to be something that is real to her and just as real to the listener. This requires an honesty and a willingness to plumb depths that the rest of us are unwilling to look into; this is why we pay songwriters to do it for us.
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On the recent as well as the older material, the simpler setting of a solo performance allowed the songs’ strengths to come through more directly than the more elaborately constructed renditions of the albums. Where the album version of "Blue Adeline" is awash in harmony vocals, piano, and violin, the unadorned electric guitar accompaniment Delmhorst played at Passim allowed the melody to be heard unencumbered, and the slower tempo of songs like "Hurricane" and "Bobby Lee" (both from Songs for a Hurricane) suited them nicely. "Hurricane" is played at a moderate rock pace on the record, and its chorus bursts the song open. As played in performance, the song is a slow burn and the chorus brings the storm clouds in, but the rain remains a threat. Stripped to a simple guitar accompaniment, "Bobby Lee" rests more than ever on the directness of the lyric, and that directness bore the weight admirably. Rather than trying to come to where the audience is, Delmhorst sings quietly to draw them in to her.

The show was not entirely given over to moody introspection, as you might imagine from reading this far. There was a lot of laughter as well, and lighter material, but most of it was the sort of thing you had to be there for. A tongue in cheek cover of an Air Supply song dedicated to the soundman on his birthday ("Matt, you’re every woman in the world to me") was an occasion of much merriment, and there was plenty of good-natured back-and-forth between the stage and the crowd. But what stays with you at the end of the night – the thing you go looking for – is the stuff that gets under your skin. And that’s something that Krish Delmhorst is very good at.

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