"Hey," I allowed, recalling a lifelong
love for songstresses of many stripes, "I like girly music."
So last month, when Larkin and Kathleen Edwards
showed up at Portland's Aladdin Theater within a few nights of
each other, it offered a perfect chance to see two singers give
girly music a good name.
Edwards is 24, Canadian and feisty, deals mostly in rough-hewn
roots rock, sports a hot CD and likes to shoot her dirty mouth
off. She's this year's it-girl.
Larkin, Midwestern and more than twice Edwards' age, has a
great gift for melodic modern folk. She's lived on both coasts,
plays a muscular acoustic guitar and sings with elegant grace.
But just like there's obviously much more to any woman than
a thumbnail sketch, Edwards and Larkin have things in common
well beyond a winning way with words and music, strong instrumental
chops and distinctive voices. Both featured a sharp band, keen
political observations and a disarmingly natural presence on
stage. Neither filled the 660-seat Aladdin.
And each has a serious problem.
Cranking up the media machine. [Click
to visit Edwards' Web site.]
Edwards' dilemma is how to live up to everyone's expectations
the least of which are probably not her own. Since January,
when Failer was released, the media machine has cranked
itself up to somewhere near a fevered pitch.
Rolling Stone proclaimed Edwards one of its 10 artists to
watch in 2003. Portland's Oregonian featured her on the cover
of its weekly A&E magazine. David Letterman twice had her
as a guest within a matter of weeks (Edwards is said to have
told a Minneapolis crowd that it must have been the blow jobs).
And the album, if not uniformly great, is solid and thoroughly
enjoyable, with glimpses of true brilliance.
On stage, Edwards is gangling yet graceful, foul-mouthed but
charming, winsome and wise beyond her years. And it's undeniably
exciting to witness someone just as their performing skills
come to full flower. More than once she cocked an eye toward
the Aladdin's far wall as if channeling some divine wisdom.
Several times, while strapped to a guitar and rounding out a
convincing quartet, she sidled up face-to-face with her lead
guitarist as her countenance gave way to an unabashed grin.
On the album, the rollicking "Westby" neatly wraps
the ambivalent post-affair feelings of a drunken motel tryst
with a married older man into a neat, humor-laced 2:27 package.
"... and if you weren't so old I would probably keep you,"
she sings, "and if you weren't so old I'd tell my friends.
But I don't think your wife would like my friends."
By song's end the geezer snoozes while the protagonist pockets
a gold watch off the bedside table bored with the cable
TV and presumably headed for the door. Even if the watch ends
up fake, one guesses, Edwards could probably glean some humor
from that, too.
The song's in-concert version agreeably accomplished the old
Bob Dylan trick of radically recasting the arrangement of perhaps
her catchiest number. Elsewhere, in a display of versatility,
Edwards soloed on the wistful "Sweet Little Duck,"
a bittersweet ballad that captures the opposite, somber side
of a doomed relationship.
In "Hockey Skates" she takes her hometown Ottawa
music scene to task. "Do you wish that the lights were
brighter in the city that you live?" she asks. "We
can talk like we are friends," she sings a bit later, "going
over it all again, talking 'bout everything I am doing wrong.
Do you think your boys club will crumble just because of a loud-mouth
Neither did Edwards, classically trained on violin and daughter
of a diplomat, back down from a world at war. "It's not
over," she said, "but you can all come to Canada when
they start up the draft." That's the refreshingly brazen
sort of attitude that can produce problems of its own.
Larkin: Ten albums since 1985.
A few nights prior, Larkin was equally unafraid of current
events: "Eighty billion dollars," she said in a remark
that still holds true as of this writing, "and all we know
for sure is that there's one less statue of Saddam Hussein in
But Larkin has a different kind of problem. Ten albums into
a solid and cult-producing career, her latest release, Red
= Luck, doesn't match Regrooving the Dream, the gem
from a few years back.
Still, the recent CD yields enough strong material to anchor
the current tour. The melodic "All That Innocence,"
"Too Bad" and "Home" could fit snugly on
Regrooving, while a night's worth of Marc Shulman's inventive
lead guitar lines attached degrees of sheer excitement to Larkin's
But Larkin's trio, which added drums to the two guitars, sorely
missed a bass player on several songs, an omission that often
refused to allow the depth and punch of her recorded output.
(A published report promised the wonderful New England singer
Merrie Amsterberg as the touring band's bassist; she was an
Still, Larkin seemed determined to deliver a satisfying, well-rounded
set which included several well-spun between-song yarns.
At one point she asked how many people had heard her live-on-Portland-radio
performance earlier in the day. "Hmm," she mused following
a smattering of applause, "so much for the marketing campaign."
the Dream: The 2000 release will be tough to top. [Click
to visit Larkin's Web site.]
That worldly-wise and easy-going demeanor is no accident. Preceding
many years of touring, Larkin grew up in a musical family, earned
a degree in English lit from the University of Oregon, then
studied at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. Clearly,
she has nothing to prove.
So no matter how you slice it, both Edwards and Larkin have
the kinds of problems that most would envy.
If Larkin ever tops Regrooving, she may yet end up a
household name. And if Edwards even matches much less
surpasses the current album with her next release, well,
clearly the sky's the limit.
Meanwhile, any of us with even the slightest leanings can enjoy
what they've already accomplished in the great good name of