In spite of myself, I paused for a moment, feeling a bit star struck, and tried to think of something clever to say (without awkwardly blurting out that I loved her work and creepily squeezing her shoulder, as I once did to Peter Sarsgaard upon a chance encounter at the Clayton Starbucks), but the best I could muster was, "Hey, you're Kathryn! I'm Meghan! I'm reviewing the show!" and then kept on my path, after she politely shook my hand. But it would appear that my starstruck-ness was for naught when, at the venue door, after Darryl the door guy suspiciously grilled me about whether I was truly "on the list" or not (despite recognizing me from my '90s table-waiting days), it was she, not he, that ushered me in, popping up from behind, saying, "Oh are you Meghan McGlynn? Yes, you are on the list." I guess we were already acquainted!
Indeed -- it would seem that Kathryn Calder is not the fill in, the backup, or the afterthought here, as she is often accused of when compared to Neko Case from the New Pornographers; in fact, according to her band mate and drummer Marek Tyler, she not only acts as manager when touring, but actually runs the entire show, including loading the tour bus, booking the venues, and, to his great admiration, leading rehearsals a mere 17 hours after completing the European leg of a tour. Impressive! Right?
The truth is, I never felt she was secondary. I was always more drawn to Kathryn than Neko, no matter how much I love and respect Neko; and, in the three times I saw NP, Neko wasn't present and it was Kathryn hitting those most memorable crystalline high notes, and Kathryn who stood, front and center, demanding attention with her voice and loveliness and musical ability, and of course, it is Kathryn leading the vocals on "Adventures in Solitude," one of my favorites.
There's no doubt that Kathryn's got the power to pull off a solo album and concert, and if the tales I heard are truthful, she's got the determination to make sure it comes to fruition. But something seemed missing from her NP days last night; she seemed, well, tired. Touring is difficult, of course, and from my short chat with Marek, who explained at length how hard Kathryn works, and also from my short pre-show chat with Kathryn herself, who declined my offer of a drink, noting that she was responsible for driving the bus to Springfield post-show, I couldn't help but wonder why she was managing and why she wasn't just being a rock star. She's got a music producer husband and a famous musician uncle, not to mention her own very successful career with NP, and though I know nothing of such things, I couldn't help but wonder why she did not avail herself of those resources and just sit back and make music happen?
The Achilles heel of that workhorse became especially exposed last night, when fewer than forty people attended the show (at least 5 of whom were likely music reviewers like myself, if the presence of several photographers is any indication). Though she charmed us with songs from her latest album, "Bright and Vivid," and her last, "Are You My Mother?," and held our attention rapt with "good stories" of their travels to Nashville and "gossip" of Dolly Parton car crashes and guitar-shaped pools (not a pool full of guitars, which would be, according to Kathryn, "ouch, bruise city"), overall, it wasn’t, well, "Bright and Vivid." And, if other reviews from this tour are any indication, it was the same last night as it was the past two weeks in Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco, etc. -- complete with small turnout, low energy and even identical set lists.
This is not a slam on Kathryn: she's lovely, and I quite enjoy her solo albums. She's brimming with talent and even crowd appeal, and her band mates are equally brilliant and charming (Marek's facial expressions are unparalleled). But just as a self-recorded album can come to life with a studio-remastering, I would think that Kathryn's potential likewise could be realized with someone attending to those business details no rock star need attend to -- there's a reason people go to business school, likely because they couldn't make it as musicians (forgive me, business people out there)! Being so awesome, Kathryn, there should be no need for a plan B!
That said, despite the dearth of energy last night, the music was poignant and the four put on a solid show. They played 11 songs in about 45 minutes, with Kathryn performing a solo version of "Arrow" midway through. Their rendition of "Day Long Past Its Prime," the show closer, complete with hip-banging percussion, three-part harmonizing, and dance-worthy tempo, was fantastic and began to deliver what should have been promised by the fledgling soloist stepping out from the well-established NP.
Her comment to KDHX interviewer Will Kyle that she just wanted her music "to be good whatever it was, because [she knew] it had to compare to all the other people in the band who are all really amazing in their own right," was spot on -- not only is her music worthy, but also her band mates Marek and Ryan Beattie, who together form Himalayan Bear, the opener for Kathryn last night, are phenomenal. Ryan's rich voice, so deep and varied it almost harmonizes with itself, together with his haunting, plaintive guitar notes and Marek's creative percussion, complete with metal board and star-shaped tambourine, were mesmerizing -- albeit only for a short 15 minutes.
Overall, the show was good. But, unlike a fellow reviewer's description of her prior stop on this tour, that it was "like a coffee-house gig," last night, in the dark, cold, reverb-y venue of Cicero's, it missed the warmth of such an intimate performance. They were there, mingling among the few dedicated fans, but what could have been the opportunity of a lifetime to blend music with music lovers and stars with fans into one big jumble of melody and dancing and mutual admiration, it was just a quick, rather anonymous Tuesday-night gig. Nevertheless, as Ryan wailed at one point, "something got a hold of me" -- indeed, there was something there, for sure. It just needs, perhaps, as Kathryn vocalized later, "a while to adjust."
All It Is
Castor and Pollux
New Frame of Mind
Turn a Light On
Who Are You?
City of Sounds
Younger Than We've Ever Been
One Two Three
Day Long Past Its Prime