Kelli Rae Powell: Surreal and Intense and Funny As Hell at the Jalopy

by delarue

Kelli Rae Powell is a woman of many voices: there’s literally nothing that she can’t sing. Last night at the Jalopy she was a gospel mama, an unstoppable bon vivant, a slink, a vamp and from time to time, a wayfaring stranger traveling through this world completely alone. This was the album release show for her new one Live at Jalopy, recorded here almost a year ago in front of a packed house. That show was a lot of fun (you can read about it here) and this one was even more so. Sleep-deprived (she’s a new mom) and laughing at her own jokes, she settled quickly into surreal storyteller mode as she voiced a million different personalities, switched between ukulele and guitar and held the crowd in the palm of her hand, backed by her husband Jim McNamara on bass and M Shanghai String Band’s Shaky Dave Pollack on harmonica.

She nonchalantly brought the intensity to redline immediately with a new song dedicated to her daughter Donna Lillian, channeling a rapt gospel intensity over McNamara’s darkly rich bowed basslines. Powell is the inventor of the drinkaby – a lullaby and drinking song – and she did a couple of her best ones. Sweet Dorina – the drinkaby to end all drinkabies – gave off a blissed-out early evening buzz, dedicated to a longtime Jalopy bartendress. Pollack hung close to the lyrics, sometimes adding an extra layer of blues-infused poignancy but just as often having fun with them. As usual, he and Powell had a lot of unspoken banter going on, to the point where she asked him for a couple of extra trainwhistle intros for Midnight Sleeper Train, a dissociative passenger’s reverie with a dark undercurrent – we never know where she’s going, or why, only that she’s finished with the person she’s dreaming about. McNamara did three jobs simultaneously: anchoring the lows, holding the rhythm and coloring the songs with snaking lead lines and made it look easy.

Some of the songs were sweet – Summertime, a deliriously happy account of an unexpected romantic reprieve, and Grace, a pensive reflection on a family member now gone off to where she can drink rum and Coke and smoke all the Camels she wants. Powell put down her uke and raised the roof on Cowboy, wry and irrepressible over a sultry bass-and-harmonica groove. She duetted jauntily with Matthew Brookshire on a twistedly funny, Pogues-ish Irish ballad about a total communication mixup with potentially disastrous results. The trio closed with a defiantly resolute cover by Terry Radigan (who produced the new album) and encored with one of Powell’s best songs, the band-on-the-road narrative Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, playing up the laughs and the lust in the lyrics rather than its hauntedly understated desire to escape and never return. All of these songs and more are on the live record which was great fun to experience as it was being made and which you will hear more about here later.