Last night at Berlin Amy Rigby was a riveting, intense, spring-loaded presence, swaying and stabbing at the air with the headstock of her guitar. She’d brought two for this solo show: a lusciously jangly Danelectro twelve-string, and a standard-issue acoustic for the punkier stuff.
About midway through, somebody interrupted her with a request. Rigby considered it but then admitted she’d forgotten what key it’s in, adding that she’d retired it after a critic had taken her to task for being too self-effacing.
In reality, Rigby definitely qualifies as humble, but her characters – single moms and struggling musicians in particular – don’t put themselves down as much as they just get worn down by having to surmount one obstacle after another. Like Ray Davies, a counterpart from an earlier era, Rigby is populist to the core, and even funnier than he is. Where Davies falls back on British vaudeville, Rigby draws on both Americana and classic powerpop, among other styles. And she’s more specifically literary.
Case in point: an offhandedly savage take of From philiproth@gmail to firstname.lastname@example.org, the wickeldy catchy, jangly shout-out to Dylan winning the Nobel Prize that opens Rigby’s latest album, The Old Guys. Just the premise of the song is hilarious. That Rigby offers a degree of sympathy for the wannabe sending his own halfhearted shout-out before her knockout of a punchline speaks to her prowess as a storyteller. She probably won’’t ever be enshrined in that corporate museum in Cleveland, but in the secret history of rock music, she’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer. Patti Smith times Elvis Costello divided by Skeeter Davis equals Amy Rigby – more or less.
Much as there were plenty of even more amusing moments, there’s always been a lot of gravitas in Rigby’s work and this set was loaded with it. She opened with Bobblehead Doll, a haggard, depleted narrative whose mantra is “What was it all for?” As she sometimes does, she coyly referenced a classic from her Nashville days in Are We Still There Yet, a fond look back at an era where cds and cassettes weren’t yet being left in boxes at random streetcorners.
A gorgeous, expansive take of Summer of My Wasted Youth was even more bittersweet. On a personal level, the screaming subtext is about having a hard time letting go of a pre-parenthood, pre-divorce rock & roll lifestyle. In historical context, it’s nothing short of shocking: there actually was a time in New York when an unemployment check could not only cover Manhattan rent but also the occasional tab at a cheap Greenpoint Polish bar.
Knapsack, a cleverly constructed tale about an unrequited crush on a bookstore security guy (at the old Borders on Church St., maybe?) was just as poignant. Rigby recounted how she’d written the wistful Tex-Mex flavored Back From Amarillo as a salute to the city, something that went little-noticed when she got to the venue because there wasn’t much of a crowd. She picked up the pace with The President Can’t Read, a savage swipe at the bozo in the Oval Office and kept the energy going with Hometown Blues, an uneasy bigup to her Pittsburgh hometown and all its quirks.
The funniest song of the night was Men in Sandals, a perplexed look at how anyone aspiring to any kind of macho heroism could wear them – it could be Mets broadcaster Howie Rose’s theme song. Rigby grew more somber toward the end of the set, reading a colorful excerpt about a college boyfriend from a forthcoming memoir and then playing a subdued, elegaic take of Bob, a song from the new album memorializing the late Lou Reed fanatic who obviously had a major impact on a future songwriting legend. She closed with Don’t Ever Change, which stops just short of exasperation in the latest chapter of a lifelong search for simple contentment. That’s just one reason why Rigby’s work resonates so universally.
Playing solo, just bass and vocals, Faith bandleader Felice Rosser built a magical, misty ambience with her catchy changes, looming chords, subtle slides and her otherworldly, Nina Simone-esque soul voice to open the evening. You might not think that just a Fender Precision and a mic would be enough to fill a room, but Rosser held the crowd rapt. With the Corinthian columns at the edge of the little stage, “It was like being in a temple,” as Rigby put it.
Rigby’s next gig is somewhere in Ojai, California on June 16. Her tour page doesn’t say where or when,