Patti and I were back at the Tupelo Music Hall on Sunday night to see Susan Werner, one of my most favorite singer-songwriters.
As with Lucy Kaplansy, I distinctly remember the first time I heard Susan. It was 1996 or maybe 1997, and I was driving to work. I was in Lowell, MA, and Susan was an in-studio guest on WERS-FM. Susan and the DJ talked for a bit, and then Susan played a live version of "Petaluma Afternoons". Bam! I was hooked, by the voice as well as the mastery of lyrics.
To this day I think that Susan is the most musically-gifted of all my favorite singer-songwriters. Richard Shindell is the best song storyteller. Vance Gilbert is the most gifted stage performer. But Susan is the most gifted musically. Her understanding of song and the craft of songwriting is unparalleled. This is illustrated, I think, in her last two albums, both of which are "project" or concept albums. The previous album, "I Can't Be New" is full of songs written in the Great American Songbook style; songs in the style of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rogers.
Susan's current album, "The Gospel Truth" is a bold and honest approach at questions and issues of religion and faith in a gospel and slightly bluegrass influenced style. Susan describes it as "hymns for the spiritually agnostic", or "agnostic gospel." There are questions of faith and doubt, and those who aren't willing to question their beliefs are advised to not venture into this album.
A wonderful suprise for this concert was the addition of Trina Hamlin for harmony vocals, percussion, and a killer harmonica. Trina is incredibly talented, and she is an excellent sidekick for Susan. If you have some time, check out some of the YouTube videos of Susan and Trina playing together.
Patti says this was the best Susan concert we have seen, and she may be right. And we have seen Susan probably close to a dozen times - solo, in a trio format, and co-bills (the co-bill with Vance Gilbert at the Somerville Theater stands out in memory). The setlist went like this (all with Trina, unless otherwise noted):
I Will Have My Portion
(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small
Our Father (The New, Revised Edition)
Sunday Mornings (solo)
After All of This (solo, on piano)
Did Trouble Me
Don't Explain It Away
Lost My Religion
Time Between Trains
St. Mary's of Regret
May I Suggest (solo)
All Of The Above (solo)
I'm In Debt (on piano)
Give Me Chicago
Jacaranda (Trina solo)
Give Me One Reason to Stay
(Barack Obama) Get Happy
I Can't Be New
Trina played harmonica on a number of songs, but she had a killer, extended harmonica solo on the end of "Time Between Trains" that rocked out. Susan performed "May I Suggest" on guitar, rather than piano as she originally always performed it; interesting variant. "All Of The Above" was played as an audience request. "(Barack Obama) Get Happy" was a contemporary political version of the old song, you know:
Forget your troubles,
Come on get happy...
Only substitute "Barack Obama" for "Forget your troubles" and then let your lyrical imagination run wild.
After the show we got to tell Susan that Lucy Kaplansky sang Susan's "May I Suggest" on the same stage just a week earlier. Susan had heard that Lucy was covering it, but hadn't yet heard Lucy's version. I also got a kick out of telling Susan that my signed pre-order copy of "The Gospel Truth" was number 13 out of the run of 100 pre-orders (Susan took pre-orders for the first one hundred CDs via her Web site). We both agreed that getting number 13 was superstitiously auspicious!
The opening act was Jenn Adams, whom I'm surprised I have never heard of before. A little bit folk, a little bit blues, she is new to the New England scene via Montana and then Nashville.