In Seattle, no weed but plenty of Mary Chapin Carpenter

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On Tuesday, after living on Whidbey Island for year, we finally went to Seattle. (I don’t counting passing through on I-5 to go somewhere else.)

As it happens, this was the first day marijuana was legally for sale in the city, but we didn’t buy any. We don’t do that sort of thing, and besides we prefer to patronize island merchants.

We made the trip for a concert: Mary Chapin Carpenter appearing with the Seattle Symphony. She has a new CD, Songs From the Movie, in which she re-does 10 of her songs with a symphony orchestra. They aren’t necessarily her best songs but the ones that work best in a symphonic arrangement.

The room, in Benaroya Hall, was warm and stuffy. Perhaps they wanted make Chapin feel at home, like she was back in muggy Virginia.

The symphony played the first number alone, a real song from a movie, music from To Kill a Mockingbird. I had wondered how many of the audience were Mary songs-from-the-movie-coverChapin Carpenter fans and how many were symphony patrons. It became clear as soon as she came on stage that these were Chapin’s people. (It was odd to see her without a guitar and in a long black dress instead of her usual jeans.)

We love Mary Chapin Carpenter, but she is not first folk or country singer I think of as a cross-over to classical music. Sopranos like Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, or Allison Krause would seem more likely to have the vocal chops to hold their own with a symphony orchestra.

Indeed, at the start of the concert it seemed like Chapin might not be up to the task. On a record (I’m old so I’m allowed to say record), the music is mixed and adjusted. Less so in a live performance. On the first few songs, Chapin was almost drowned out by the orchestra. The music was beautiful, but we had trouble making out the words. Part of the problem was that these were some of her lesser — or at least less well-known — songs.

But she began to hit her stride with the last song before intermission, “I Am a Town,” and she really picked up steam after the break. Maybe they turned up her mike. Or maybe she just got stronger. For whatever reason, the second half of the show was much better. It also helped that these were some of her best songs, including “Come on, Come On” and “Stones in the Road.”

The audience liked the first half but they loved the second, applauding the first few bars of familiar songs and roaring their approval at the end. And they went nuts for the encore, “The Hard Way” (which isn’t on the CD), on which even the conductor, Adam Stern, seemed to be rockin’ out.

The crowd wanted more and a brief moment I thought we might actually get “I Feel Lucky” or “Down at the Twist and Shout,” but it was not to be.

Still, it was a terrific concert. I’ll be interested to hear what my D.C. friends think when they see Chapin with the National Symphony at Wolf Trap in a few weeks.

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