Live Review: Gretchen Peters @ City Winery — 9/6/19

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Gretchen Peters (Photo by Gina Binkley)

When Gretchen Peters’ “Independence Day” came out, there were radio stations that wouldn’t play it because of its controversial subject matter: domestic violence. While the song takes place on July 4, it’s not about July 4.

Gretchen felt that the actual lyrics were being ignored when Sarah Palin used it. One might see a parallel to see the patriotic and jingoistic misinterpretations that attached to Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” a song about the plight of Vietnam Veterans; the true messages of these songs got lost in a blind, right-wing focus on a few words in the chorus.

Gretchen stopped playing “Independence Day” for a while because of the whole Palin fracas. Eventually, she decided, “I’ve got to get my song back.” One day, she sat down and played it on the piano, a stripped-down arrangement. Gretchen’s own recordings of her own songs favor sparse, clean presentations that fall somewhere in the area of country-folk to Americana. There’s some twang, but the vocals are out front, favoring her exceptional lyrics, sung in her clear, expressive voice.

At Friday night’s concert at City Winery, Gretchen played “Independence Day” after her husband, Gary Walsh, played a lovely instrumental piano piece, “Belgian Afternoon,” from his latest album, Silencia. She remarked, “Every night I choose to play piano for you after he does that.” Gretchen and Gary have been making music together for 29 years, and married for the last nine. Gary, who accompanied Gretchen on all the other songs this evening, has also worked with Johnny Paycheck, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Alex Chilton and the Boxtops, paid a working visit to Al Green’s church and smoked up with Willie.

Gretchen welcomed a special guest on Friday night. Jaimee Harris, a young singer-songwriter from Austin who was in town for a house concert on Kent Island on Saturday, sang harmony on “Say Grace.” She returned later when Gretchen covered Tom Russell’s song “Guadelupe.”

Gretchen began her set with a couple songs from her latest album, last year’s Dancing with the Beast, “Arguing With Ghosts” and “Wichita.” She followed those with “Matador,” a dark love song just released by Tricia Yearwood, telling the audience, “While I’m singing this, try not to think about Garth Brooks.”

Stream Dancing with the Beast by Gretchen Peters on Spotify:

When Gretchen was putting together Dancing with the Beast, she found that all the songs were from the perspective of female characters. She described “The Boy from Rye” as the centerpiece of the album. Before she could get to that centerpiece, though, she had a piece of business to attend to.

To anyone unfamiliar with oeuvre, Gretchen explained, “We’re not going to be playing you a lot of happy songs.” She likes to get the “worst” one out of the way early: the title track of her superb (4.5 stars on Allmusic) 2015 album, Blackbirds.

Gretchen played more songs from Dancing with the Beast: “Disappearing Act” and “When All You’ve Got Is a Hammer.” In the late ’90s, she wrote “When You Love Someone” with Bryan Adams for the Sandra Bullock film Hope Floats. Bryan recorded the film version, and later recorded a duet with Gretchen for her collection, The Essential Gretchen Peters. Gretchen joked that Bryan wasn’t available tonight because he’s playing an arena somewhere.

Going in a different direction, she then introduced “Lowlands,” a song she started writing on Nov. 9, 2016, and hopes to stop singing on Election Day 2020. After her cover of Tom Russell’s “Guadelupe,” she introduced, to applause, the crowd favorite “On a Bus to St. Cloud.” She followed with “Five Minutes” from Hello Cruel World, in which a waitress reminisces about her life.

In November, Gretchen is performing with John Prine at his All The Best Festival in the Dominican Republic. She talked about how much she wanted to sing “Angel from Montgomery” but, instead, gets to sing “In Spite of Ourselves” with John. Gretchen did a fine, twangy, Iris DeMent-styled vocal, and Barry stood in for John.

To close the show, Gretchen unplugged and stepped down off the stage, performing one last song TFA — totally fucking acoustic. This last song was the beautiful “Love That Makes a Cup of Tea” from Dancing with the Beast. The audience rewarded Gretchen’s fine performance with a standing ovation. For nearly an hour, Gretchen remained at the merch table, signing and taking photographs.

Gretchen, as I said, is a truly fine songwriter. She represents the best in Americana, its progressive spirit and its lyrical beauty. Gretchen has the confidence and poise of a veteran, seasoned performer, completely comfortable with an audience in an intimate setting. If you think you don’t like “country” music, you should give Gretchen a try: you’ll find it’s more intelligent, sophisticated, and moving than what you might associate with that label.

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