All photos courtesy of Joan Bowlen Designs
The new year can't officially begin without an annual dose of longing, loss and wry humor. Every year Shawn Colvin
returns to Yoshi's Jazz Club in San Francisco for a three-day residency, in which she delves into her entire oeuvre, providing a smattering of songs from almost every album of her career. This year, coming off of a book release and All Fall Down
, her first new album in six years, Shawn Colvin was in rare form, pulling out a few truly unexpected gems to glitter among an already solid live show.
It is clear that Colvin has a soft spot for Yoshi's, coming back yearly for an extended stay and choosing to record her seminal 2009 Live
album here. The atmosphere of the room has an intimate and casual feel, with the audience seated at tables of four, mingling companionably while they wait for Colvin to appear mere feet from them on stage. Throughout the evening, audience members feel comfortable yelling out endearments and song requests, many of which Colvin responds to, incorporating them into her stories and apologizing when she doesn't plan on covering their request.
Colvin's conversational performance style provides delightfully jaunty interludes between renditions of her emotionally vulnerable and self-reflective folk songs. This time around, Colvin spoke often about aging and shifting her personal philosophy. The shift seems to revolve around an attitude of “can't hear, can't see, don't care,” displaying an openness and acceptance of self that was both charming and completely belied by her performance of new material from the 2012 album, All Fall Down
. Colvin may be getting older, but she still cares deeply for the perpetuation of great folk music and she has the song-crafting skill to continue delivering relevant and thoughtful work.
Songs such as “All Fall Down,” “Change Is On the Way” and “Anne of a Thousand Days” all display Colvin's signature style of beautiful guitar work interwoven with a poetic narrative with a focus on the tumultuous nature of interpersonal relationships. The title track “All Fall Down” has a lyrical and rhythmic tone that feels akin to songs like These Four Walls
’ “Fill Me Up” and A Few Small Repairs
’ “Get Out of This House”—it has a foot-stomping beat that somehow blends wonderfully with biting lyrics such as “I don't understand why and I might never know, but I believe in love, I like to swallow it whole.” The song was a decided crowd-pleaser and one Colvin used during each of her sets, as it offered a slight change of pace to some of her softer rhythms.
“Change Is On the Way,” which she co-wrote with Patty Griffin, definitely displays a slower pace than that of the title track, but it is a gorgeous piece of hope and progress that has an almost gospel tone. Colvin premiered this song last year before the album's release and it seems to be one that she is proud of- and rightfully so. Colvin spoke of her collaboration with Griffin, who is also a long-time friend, and the quality of their collective artistic talent is evident throughout. The lyrics are haunting in their unwavering vulnerability and honesty and the guitar is minimal, allowing Colvin’s rich alto to ring with utter conviction on the chorus, triumphantly declaring “I feel like change is on the way.” With any luck, this will become a live performance staple in the years to come.
Shawn Colvin also pulled out a surprisingly humorous rendition of All Fall Down
’s mid-album track “Anne of a Thousand Days.” In the song, Colvin compares her partner to Henry VIII, describing a number of infidelities and a complete inability to commit to one woman. On the album, her voice engenders a sense of wistfulness and melancholy over the quick passing of time within the relationship. Live, Colvin invokes a spritely mirth when delivering lines like “And I’m sorry I broke into your email, but I had to know,” letting the audience know that she’s not sorry at all. Her dry presentation and humorous facial expressions had the audience giggling at each relationship’s inevitable demise; invoking a Loudon Wainwright-like approach to the song's storytelling. It is no mean feat to take a song of emotional usury and turn it into a comedy, and the song felt like a delightful departure for Colvin.
Another surprise came with the absence of “Sunny Came Home” from the setlist. Since the 1996 release of A Few Small Repairs
, the chart-topping song has seemed a certainty at any Shawn Colvin show. It is her most universally known song and one that always gets a hearty round of applause at the first strumming of the familiar chords, so its removal from the lineup was noticeable. This omission feels a bit like a public declaration—it has been over 15 years since “Sunny ,” and Colvin has toured extensively, produced three quality studio albums, a live album and a memoir since then; if she isn’t feeling like a murder ballad that night, Colvin no longer feels beholden to play one. Some audience members may be disappointed, but Colvin’s confidence in the strength of her discography as a whole is incredibly refreshing.
And that confidence is well founded. Colvin’s songs, whether from 30 years ago or the last year, speak with poetic acuity and openness to the human experience. Her live shows have always felt so personal, performing songs that encapsulate her own private struggles and talking about them with a frank humor that is immediately relatable. Songs from 1989's Steady On
such as “Diamond in the Rough” and “Ricochet in Time” continue the search for meaning and connection with lasting potency as Colvin’s voice matures and her catalog grows. The wealth of her cover material expands as well, embracing influences that span her entire career and leaving us with a sense that these songs have been as integral to her musicality as her own compositions. Tom Wait’s “Hold On” is often played in the same set as Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” each performed simultaneously with deep reverence to the original and a graceful poignancy that is all her own.
Shawn Colvin knows, respects and indulges the personal and professional history behind her music-making, celebrating her influences and collaborations with every show. She is a master of her craft, an unparalleled performer and soulful artist who continues to integrate and grow with her years; seeing her year after year is a joy that keeps on giving.