Like Mickey Newbury before her, singer/songwriter Lori McKenna writes sad songs. And, like Patty Griffin, she has the sad voice to back it up. In between, though, McKenna is one of the funniest performers this side of Kenny Rogers. After starting her set with the heartaching tale of a life lost that is “ The Time I’ve Wasted,” McKenna warned the crowd, “It’s just gonna go probably downhill from there… at least in my set.” And, with “The Luxury of Knowing” and “God Never Made One of Us to Be Alone,” she proved her point, adding, “Do you feel any better about your own life after my first three songs?”
But the beauty of McKenna’s writing is that her tales of woe could be anyone’s tales of woe. She starts at the heart of the matter and works from there on out, spinning catchphrases (“Girl Crush,” anyone?) into stories that resonate and ricochet around the room. Whether it’s “All a Woman Wants” (done in the key of “C-and-a-half”) or “If I Could Buy This Town” (what Kris Delmhorst calls a “fur ball” of a song because it just kind of came out), McKenna paints with the smallest of brushes, the dimmest of hues. But, the resulting art is inevitably a portrait of the commonalities of condition that make us each and all human. Recognizing that, the crowd rose to its feet after McKenna closed her set with the life lessons codified for her kids in “Humble and Kind.”
Considering what a hard act to follow McKenna is, Trent Dabbs did a brave and bold thing by having her open for him. Dabbs started his set the same way he starts his new Believer album, with “Nature of the Beast.” On that cut, his roots were showing in its slide guitar and shuffling rhythm before he covered them right back up with the edgier pop of its album-mate, “Make a Believer.” With “Mountain Song,” a tune written with Daniel Tashian, Dabbs sort of split the difference and let his guitarist bring it all home with a fiery guitar run that Dabbs joked was as Dire Straits as he could get.
The soulful groove of “Goes without Saying,” the upbeat folk of “For the Grace of You,” and the downtempo ambience of “World on Time” all followed before Dabbs handed the mic over to Nashville‘s Sam Palladio for “World on Time.” Then, McKenna joined him for the “Future Like Snow” duet they penned together. After a few more numbers, including the penultimate tune that featured such a fierce guitar solo that it got a standing ovation, Dabbs closed the night on the quieter note of “Nobody’s Stranger Anymore.”