In many ways, Mary-Chapin Carpenter is nothing like what a country star is supposed to be. She doesn't wear Stetson hats or elaborately embroidered denim outfits, preferring instead to go with an unpretentious jacket-and-jeans look. And where other stars head out with bands that are heavy on the traditional moan of fiddle and pedal steel, Carpenter's group tends more toward the raucous energy of rock and roll, fleshing out her songs with Byrds-like guitar lines and foot-stomping piano flourishes.
All that is simply a matter of surface style, though. As her Saturday show at the Lyric Theater made plain, when you get down to the issue of song content -- of simple, straightforward melodies and the sort of story-based lyrics anyone can relate to -- Carpenter is country to the core.
What, after all, could be more basic than the folksy flirtatiousness of "How Do," or the tired-of-being-taken-for-granted story that's at the heart of "He Thinks He'll Keep Her"? And was there any woman present who couldn't relate to at least one of the songs in what she described as her "ex-boyfriend trilogy"?
Still, as much as her material was based on the essentials of classic country songwriting, an awful lot of her stage act relied on good ol' rock and roll.
"I Feel Lucky," for instance, may boogie along over a chugging Bob Seger beat on the album, but on stage Carpenter's band took it a few steps further, with John Jennings hoisting his guitar behind his head for a searing, Hendrix-style solo before pianist Jon Carroll brought the tune to a close with a snatch of New Orleans piano. And even "How Do" featured a funky slap-and-pluck break by bassist J. T. Brown -- not to mention Jennings' sly quote from "Smoke On the Water."
That's not to say Carpenter's crew rocked out on every number. In fact, several of the evening's most affecting performances found the band barely playing above a whisper. "Only a Dream," which found Carpenter accompanied only by Carroll's grand piano, was particularly hushed, yet Carpenter's singing gave such weight to the words that the audience sat spellbound, captivated by the song's nostalgic narrative.
Even so, by show's end it was clear that what the capacity crowd liked best were rip-roaring numbers like "Passionate Kisses" and "Down at the Twist and Shout." "I want a full house and a rock and roll band," went one of the lines in "Passionate Kisses," and not only did Carpenter have both, but she was also blessed with an audience enthusiastic enough to bring that band back for four fun-filled encores.
Opening the show was Kevin Johnson and the Linemen, a Washington quartet whose sound draws on the same country/rock fusion Carpenter helped popularize.
Of course, Johnson and his Linemen have a way to go before reaching the same level the headliner has, for not only are the Linemen nowhere near as accomplished as Carpenter's players, but Johnson's material is often too self-conscious to carry the kind of emotional impact Carpenter's songs manage. But when the group hit its stride -- as on "Heaven Knows, Enola" or "Figure Five" -- it showed enormous promise.