Edgy Songwriters Bare Their Fangs at the Parkside
Songwriters in the round. No, wait, don’t click off the page, it was like that but it wasn’t. From the first few seconds of the night, the three women onstage at the Parkside on Thursday made it clear that this would not be a G-rated evening of terminally pretty voices singing terminally pretty songs. Given a chance to not only sing but also discuss their material at length, Rebecca Turner, Paula Carino and Erica Smith vented about the thankless side of their profession: clueless audiences, backhanded compliments, and the sheer expense of it all. Why do they do it? Because they can’t imagine not doing it – which was encouraging to hear. Carino is a wordsmith who can’t resist a catchy hook. Turner is a specialist, one of the finest, most indelibly original voices in Americana rock; Smith, the star of Beefstock 2010, is the eclectic one: she can write anything. Asked to explain how it feels to be a performer, Carino responded that it was much like police work: “Hours of boredom, moments of sheer terror.” Smith saved her derision for clueless listeners, the kind of morons who say things like “That’s a pretty song – who wrote it?” Turner explained that she’d come to grips with dumb crowds, especially since she’s been playing more covers at a lot of New Jersey gigs lately (she hastened to add that there’s also a considerable audience for quality original music there). Here on their home turf, the four fed off each others’ energy and banter and turned in a fascinating show.
Solo on electric guitar, Carino jangled her way through a bunch of rare gems that she seldom plays live: Readers Digest, which uses bulimia as a metaphor for a host of other ills; the angst-ridden existentialist lament Waiting for You (“Then the river froze and I started skating/Of course I’d rather swim but I’m tired of waiting”), and Sensitive Skin, a metaphorically loaded “public service announcement for people not to get involved with people who are too sensitive.” She explained that she’d changed the gender of the song’s central character to a woman: if the guy with the bathroom full of extra-sensitive formula lotions knows it, he’s undoubtedly grateful she did.
The night’s most exhilarating vocal moment belonged, unsurprisingly, to Turner. As the third verse of her big crowd-pleaser Tough Crowd (a little irony there) kicked in, she took it up as far as she could, which is a long way. She’d explained how each of the verses tackles a different subject: friends, then family, then an audience, deftly linking how absurd it can be to try to communicate with any of them sometimes. As warmly memorable as her melodies are, there’s also usually an undercurrent of unease, most strikingly apparent on Knocks, a chronicle of a trip to Maine circa 2004: “Go on, grey sky, open up,” she sang, as much a dare as resignation to an unwanted fate.
Smith pulled out a lot of new material: she’s never written better. “I lost my job and wanted to write a song about how good freedom is,” she explained defiantly and then launched into a catchy Americana-pop number: “If you’re lucky you’ll never work again in this town.” The last verse of another new one, River King, she explained, came to her in a dream, ostensibly written by Adam Cooper and her lead guitarist, Dann Baker. For whatever reason, that’s where central character, on vacation and miserable, gets dressed up in her lacy things and goes down to the waterfront bar. She clarified that it’s probably the last thing either of those two would ever be likely to write. And another new one, a garage rock number, turned out to be a bittersweet but encouraging tribute to enduring friendships – that’s why acoustic shows can be so interesting sometimes, since the lyrics are audible. Watch this space for future shows by these artists, very possibly as a trio again.
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