I believe the entirety of the full house at the Sheldon on Friday night felt as I did in watching this performance: that we had somehow been witness to a kitchen confession, a coffee conversation, and a klatch of camaraderie that only the closest of friends, or girls at a sleep over get to experience. But with guitars.
To say that Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter are friends doesn't really touch the depth of their experience. They've held hands or have provided loving support to one another through thick and thin. Partners have come and gone. Demons have been battled. Albums have been recorded, children have been born and careers have been up, and down. And still they are friends.
I have known the work of both artists for years but had not had the pleasure of seeing them in concert together; few have, actually, as this tour is, somehow, the first of their long relationship.
When I first got to the wonderland of university life, fresh from the pile of sticks in which I had resided, one of the hottest bands in the bars there was the Dixie Diesels. They were a Western swing band replete with a sort of strangely dressed girl singer, one Shawn Colvin. It was 14 years before she would release a solo album, but I was hooked from the beginning.
Then the band moved to Austin, Texas and I had to find another love. And I had school to attend. Bummers abounded in the late '70s.
The next time she moved into my radar screen was when she played solo, accompanied by a guitar, with army boots for percussion, at Shryock Auditorium, in our old college town of Carbondale, Ill. That night I picked up my acoustic guitar again, after a hiatus of the best part of a decade, and began to play songs from the "Fat City" songbook I bought that night, in tunings I'd not experienced before, so moved was I by what I had heard. And felt.
I first heard Mary Chapin Carpenter with her cover of the Lucinda Williams classic, "Passionate Kisses," and then saw her perform for the first time when I took my 9-year-old daughter to Lilith Fair as it passed through St. Louis in the summer of 1997.
With seven Grammy awards between them, five for Carpenter and two for Colvin, and no less than 22 other, combined Grammy nominations, the two dominated awards and the charts in the country and folk genres for years. Colvin had one of the most bizarre award show experiences when she was interrupted by Ol' Dirty Bastard, of the Wu Tang Clan, as she accepted her award for Song of the Year in 1998 for "Sunny Came Home." ODB predated Kanye by 11 years!
The show at the Sheldon started with both artists taking the stage together and playing a gorgeously rendered cover of Donovan's "Catch the Wind," and the crowd was in their very capable hands from that moment on. The two seem so close, in the way of good friends, who rib each other and go with the flow. In the next song's introduction, Carpenter mentioned that the two had been friends for 30 years, and Colvin quickly added, "Since we were born!" Carpenter's smiling reply: "Exactly."
They announced that the evening was to be like the many they had spent together, in living rooms, playing music and laughing. And eating. Colvin said her choice would be popcorn and chocolate. Carpenter said she'd have her dogs and cats around her, and would be in her pajamas. Colvin retorted, "By 4 p.m.!" Carpenter just smiled, nodded and agreed.
The two dress like their personalities, Colvin in a gray dress with pants under and Italian shoes that were two different sizes, but were a bargain! Carpenter was in jeans and flats with a nice comfy shirt and jacket.
Some songs were played with both on guitar, but many were offered with one playing, both are adept at acoustic solo instrumentation, and the other either singing backup or, often, sitting in a chair, raptly listening like another audience member, turned around the other way.
Clothing took center stage in the second song as Carpenter sang her lovely "This Shirt." Carpenter's songs, as she admitted, are studied pieces, written in solitude, while Colvin explained that she often writes the melodies and then sings in tongues until lyrics form inside the madness. One might think a song about a shirt would be a throw away, a toss off. That would be wrong.
This shirt was a pillow for my head
On a train through Italy.
This shirt was a blanket beneath the love
We made in Argeles
This shirt was lost for three whole days
In a town near Buffalo
'Till I found the locker key
In a downtown Trailways bus depot
For the third song, Carpenter sat and Colvin played my favorite of all her songs, "Polaroids," and explained before it that her songs tend to be all about breakups, even though some of them "clip along, just to fool you."
It's impossible here to capture more than a portion of the love and fun that flowed between the two. Colvin did an Alan Rickman imitation when Carpenter admitted to having a thing for him. Carpenter played an impromptu "Mrs. Robinson" when Colvin admitted to thinking her grocery bagger was cute. Other hijinks flew by too quickly to do much more than sit back, with the rest of the adoring audience, and laugh.
Both played songs from early in their careers. Colvin delighted us with "Shotgun Down the Avalanche" and "Round of Blues," in addition to the award-winning "Sunny Came Home." Carpenter delivered "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" and "I Feel Lucky." But both artists played beautiful new songs as well, especially Colvin's "Change Is on the Way" and Carpenter's "Hand on My Back."
Covers were well represented too, adding Steve Earle's "Someday," the hauntingly rendered Beatles tune, "I'll Be Back" and what both artists said they believe is the most beautiful song they know, "That's the Way Love Goes," by Lefty Frizzell and Sanger Shafer.
As the night drew to a close, Carpenter lamented it being over and seemed genuine in her longing for more time. In keeping with the intimacy, someone from the audience suggested that we all order pizza. Both artists smiled and it seemed like, just for a moment, we just might do it.