Thousands of music fans stood in a dusty, shadeless baseball diamond, squinting through an ocean of asymmetrical haircuts to see a band they had never heard of, that was performing 100 yards away. Four miles north, a dozen fans sat on padded chairs in an air-conditioned, smoke-free hall, feeling both too old, and too wise, to be at the former.
Mary Lou Lord doesn't perform much anymore. Her spasmodic dysphonia makes it difficult to sing, and more so, it makes her very self-conscious. She hasn't recorded an album five years, and hasn't done a full-blown tour in who knows how long. Because of this, it was a bit sad that Lord's visit to Chicago had to coincide with the be-there-or-be-lame Pitchfork Fest.
Chicago's Utah Carol opened the show. The band's music is full of stirring sentiment and emotional tales of woe presented in a completely timeless blending of folk and country. Many of the band's sad tales lent themselves to country waltzes, while songs such as the new "Twilight Time" were revved up to near stompers (alright there was no real stomping but the audience did attempt to clap along). I believe there was even a polka tossed in for good measure.
The band is the product of a husband and wife team, guitarist Grant Birkenbeuel and keyboardist JinJa Davis. They were accompanied on stage by upright bassist Larry Kohut who also can be heard on the bands latest, self-released CD, Rodeo Queen. Birkenbeuel's finger-picked acoustic guitar flits around the melody of most songs, leaving the couple's generally-blended voices to create the melody. Davis' voice can be straightforward and strong, though generally it's breezy, airy, and easy. Her keyboard contributions are merely a whisp of sound here, or an accent there. I don't recall any traditional piano-type accompaniment, but there were moments of synthesized horns, flutes, and even an ice rink organ at various points during the night. Kohut was silent and strong, providing a steady by-the-numbers bounding bass line with hints of percussive slap.
The audience swelled from only a dozen patrons at the start of the band's set, to nearly three dozen at the band's exit. Utah Carol stuck close to its setlist, although when pressed by time, the final two songs did have to be cut. At one point a particularly raucous audience member called up asking for "Sparkles." Davis curtly replied, "We can't do that one," prompting a bewildered Berkenbeuel to ask which song that might be. After singing a few lines of the song to remind Berkenbeuel, Davis abruptly stopped and spat out "There you go Mom." Lovely. But that's the sort of informal show it was.
At 9pm Mary Lou Lord climbed on stage with her K. Yairi acoustic guitar. She was humble, and maybe a bit hesitant. She prefaced the show by explaining her medical condition, explaining how she hasn't played out for so long, and ultimately said she was performing now because she was told she either "use it or lose it." Lord is, thankfully, not ready to lose it. She ended her introduction by instructing the small audience to heckle or call up requests as the urge struck.
Mary Lou Lord's history is long and sordid. She's flirted with stardom, with the tabloids, with major labels, and with more than one rock star. All of this is somewhat strange for a performer who doesn't write the majority of her own material, and has played for more folks passing through the Boston subway system than for paying customers in music halls. Lately, as Lord confessed, she hasn't been playing or writing much at all, and as a result, tunings seemed to take longer than they should, song lyrics were forgotten, and toward the end of the set she began to run out of songs she knew how to play. While this may sound unprofessional or even pitiful, it was instead endearing and personal. When her fingers reached for strings but missed, causing the guitar to yelp an unwelcome note, Lord would smile, bite her tongue, and continue. It was simply adorable.
Lord's voice is generally thin, but seems to adapt itself to nearly every song she plays. Songs fell in three categories: The first is her own material. Lord probably played seven or seven or eight of her own songs including both "Western Union Desperate" and "Some Jingle Jangle Morning" from her first 7". The second are songs written, and made famous by, other performers. Her repertoire included songs by such far-reaching artists as AC/DC (as rearranged/re-envisioned by Mark Kozelek), The Pogues, Richard Thompson, and many, many others. The third are those written by Nick Saloman (of Bevis Frond) specifically for Lord. These songs make up the bulk of Lord's later material. He has a knack of writing songs perfectly suited for Lord, and he may even know her voice better than she does. The Saloman-penned "She Had You" was the only song that pushed Lord to use her full voice throughout the evening.
Due to the small crowd, and Lord's surprising lack of ego, the performance remained spontaneous and relaxed. Exchanges with the audience (and even particular members of the audience) were frequent and never rushed. I spoke more with Lord from the audience that evening than I do most musicians in interviews. When a particularly well-versed fan called out for Lord's "Throng of Blowtown," the entire audience was treated to a story about the song's creation, and how it was inspired by Bob Pollard when she opened a Guided by Voices tour (sponsored by Budweiser and thus dubbed the "Guided by Bud Light Tour"). Lord also name-dropped a story pertaining to Daniel Johnston, and continually pushed a new artist named Death Vessel that she was particularly fond of. Several times during the night she was sure to dedicate songs to herself.
After a bit more than an hour, and after some help from the audience to remind her of songs she might know, Lord closed with Steve Earle's "Someday." She didn't play an encore, but instead moved to the back of the club to (hopefully) sell CDs and mingle with her fans. Unfortunately I had to head home (I was hosting out-of-town guests who had bussed in for that other show), but, after all, we had already caught up during the show. I hope it wont be such a long time before our next visit.