I’ve always thought about the place in art making and art experiencing that parallels my pursuit of what might traditionally be called the “spiritual,” a place where the practice of art moves us to transcend the everyday and lets us tap into a greater experience of who we are and what is.
I’ve always been involved with spiritual practices and have even seen yoga become a major part of what I do with my life. It’s trickier to figure out where the line of the spiritual is in art. Kandinsky and Blake approached the topic directly, but to me, what’s interesting are those occurrences when the sheer act of creating or feeling work is the spiritual event. I’ve been exploring the topic with two photo series called “Does Love Show?” and more to the point, “Does Bliss Show?”
Which is all to preface my feelings about last night’s concert by Shawn Colvin and her longtime collaborator, John Leventhal at New York’s new venue, City Winery. Everything else I’ll say is technical information. The important piece of my review is simply this: Shawn Colvin’s voice makes me cry. Just thinking about writing that line got me a little choked up. And I can’t figure out what it is. It’s like a tantric tool in which the universe congealed to put a link between my ears and bliss and it’s Shawn Colvin’s voice. Thank god the room was dark last night; it would have been embarrassing.
The show was incredibly intimate, just two guitars and one voice. The venue’s acoustic are very good and the guitars sounded like you had your ear at the sound hole (or amp, in the case of Leventhal’s processed acoustic); Colvin’s voice was in its classic effortless form. The set began with a Donovan cover (Catch the Wind) and swiftly moved to a good long, chatty, informal show. I felt as though we’d dropped in on Colvin and Leventhal’s rehearsal, or a party they met at after a while apart. They replayed an intro when Colvin noticed he had started a fancier arrangement over her more standard version, they argued about playing a jazz classic that drew cheers from the audience and made her say, Okay, I guess I’ll be like Rod Stewart and … make a torch album,” they ad libbed the Jackson Five’s “I’ll be there” and a Minnie Mouse version of “Stop the Love You Save …” in some stratospheric key. In short, this was just about having fun. And the audience could not get enough.
Part of what drew me to Colvin’s music is that it adds a beautiful complication to the classic folk chord progressions, dabbling in the redneck jazz territory Nashville musicians love. But the New York in the girl makes for really tough-yet-poignant lyrics and a wry sense of humor that you could worry borders on depression if she weren’t so quick to smile and joke (“my sister and I were in the suburbs with her kids and my kid and we were watching tennis on TV and looking at the hot guys on the court and realizing we weren’t hot any more — that’s pretty much where this song came from”). Plus her taste in covers is just awesome. Her album “Cover Girl” contains the coolest version of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place,” I can imagine, and a deceptively dark version of Steve Earle’s “This Town.” Last night she covered what she called her favorite Tom Waits song (“Hold On” — it’s hard to dance when it’s cold outside and there’s no music), the aforementioned Jackson’s (Levinthal drew a line in the fun when Michael’s name came up, but recapitulated when she started a Jackson Five song) and one alt-rock song that escapes me right now that was such a surprise choice that she stopped at the reaction from the crowd and said, “Oh, you just didn’t expect that,” and picked it up again.
I felt a kind of bittersweet loss when another of my favorite songwriters, Aimee Mann, went from under-appreciated to ubiquitous. I’d actually be glad to see more people listening to Shawn Colvin. I’d miss feeling like part of an in-crowd, but I’d like to see if more people experience the crying thing. I’m guessing they would. I took a good friend to hear a concert in DC a decade ago. She had never heard Colvin before, and after the first song, turned to me and said, “if I sang like that, I could die happy.”