You know that friend — we all have one — whom you love dearly, who’s witty and great company, has a big heart and has lived an interesting life but — his or her stories go on and on … and on … ? Chely Wright is the singer version of that friend. This chatty Cathy, while a delight on all fronts, talked a blue streak at her Birchmere show Thursday night. So loquacious and long winded was the singer, she made VH-1 Storytellers sound like a sound bite.
It wasn’t unpleasant — it’s just that Wright could have made equally potent points in half the time had she gleaned her tales down to essential facts. It’s like the adage about writing — I could have made it much shorter if I’d had the time. It was so egregious, one exasperated audience member yelled out, “Just sing the song!” after Wright, following a lengthy introduction, stopped playing her encore number because she’d forgotten one side note to the story she found it necessary to share.
On one hand, it’s great. If you’ve ever heard Bob Dylan barely mumble a “thank you” — that’s usually the extent of his stage patter — you know the feeling of yearning to hear a bit more conversation from your favorite singers in concert. Wright, however, takes it to the opposite extreme and it can, depending on your perspective, be somewhat problematic. It meant she only managed to get through 10 full songs in her 95-minute set Thursday night (though there were snippets of two others).
To be fair, though, Wright has a lot to say. The 41-year-old country singer came out last year with a memorable Oprah appearance and memoir and just this summer married her partner, Lauren Blitzer. She’s probably reeling from having kept so much bottled up for so many years. Who among us can’t relate to becoming an almost painfully open book once we finally mustered the courage to come out? And it’s her concert, after all. She can do whatever the hell she wants.
But on a pretty basic level, songs — especially the literal, face-value type Wright and most in country pen — need to speak for themselves. Sure, it’s fascinating at times to hear how a song came to be, but Wright tunes like “Bumper of My SUV” and “That Train,” great songs as was everything she sang, tell their own stories. If the songwriter has succeeded, especially in country-style songwriting, performing them is enough. These are hardly Radiohead- or Tori Amos-like lyrical Rorschach tests.
Wright’s introductions worked best on the more extreme ends of her set — the moody “Notes to the Coroner” benefited from Wright’s relaying of her pre-coming out depression while the sardonic “Something Positive and Hopeful,” which she penned after her record label told her too much of her material at the time was dark, picked up steam from her tale telling.
But by evening’s end, she was forced to jettison “Wish Me Away,” “Damn Liar” and “Like Me” — all of which were on the band’s set list — to finish on time. She did one verse and chorus of “He’s a Good Ole’ Boy” to honor an audience request but ignored others to close with “I Am Yours Forever,” a new song she wrote for Blitzer.
Wright, looking svelte as usual but also a bit bookwormy with glasses and her hair pulled back, is so clearly enjoying her new love and open life, it’s curmudgeonly to critique her too harshly. She sounded glorious — her crystalline vocals have such clarity of pitch, she sounds like she’s never hit a flat note in her life. And sitting on stools with a guitarist and bass player (Wright also played acoustic guitar on most songs), Wright gave the show a relaxed, loosey-goosey feel. It picked up logically where unpretentious opener Lucy Wainwright Roche (Rufus’s half sister) left off. Hits “Shut Up and Drive,” “Jezebel” and “Single White Female” sounded wondrously fresh and rollicking in the stripped-down format. This woman writes the kind of hooks you can bounce quarters off of, they’re so tight. It’s great songwriting of the kind I’ve mourned the loss of in pop since hip-hop hijacked the Hot 100 about 10 years ago.
Wright will undoubtedly tweak her act in years to come. One the newness of her being out dies down, it will be interesting to see what kind of audience she settles into. Country radio has abandoned even her heyday material but gays and lesbians were out in healthy numbers for this week’s show. She’s an artist, regardless of her sexual orientation, who deserves to be heard. And if she wants to be a little self indulgent in her live show, that’s OK. She made up for it in spades by posing for photos and signing autographs in a very leisurely — this was no cattle call — meet-and-greet line after the concert.
1. Shut Up and Drive
3. Notes to the Coroner
4. It Was
5. Something Positive and Hopeful
7. Hang Out in Your Heart
8. That Train
* My Buddy (excerpt)
9. Bumper of My SUV
10. Single White Female
11. He’s a Good Ole Boy
12. I Am Yours Forever