Saturday night at the Mercury, Mary Lee’s Corvette put on a clinic in eclectic tunesmithing, smartly conversational interplay, brilliant lyricism and spine-tlngling vocals. There literally isn’t a style that frontwoman/guitarist Mary Lee Kortes can’t write in: powerpop, Americana, glam rock, cabaret, classical, jazz, and psychedelia, to name a few. She did a lot of that, and held the crowd spellbound with that crystalline voice, which can leap two octaves or more, effortlessly. She’s been regarded as arguably the best singer in New York for a long time (noir haunter Karla Rose and Indian belter Roopa Mahadevan are good points of comparison).
Throughout a tantalizing forty-five minute set, Kortes validated everything good that’s ever been said about her. The band opened with the gritty new wave-flavored kiss-off anthem Need for Religion (as in, “Maybe it was just my need for religion that made me believe in you,” and it gets meaner from there). New lead guitarist Jack Morer played purposeful, incisiive fills on his Strat while new bassist Cait O’Riordan – founding member of the Pogues – shifted from nimble, dancing lines to snarling upward runs, and swung hard. Not only does she totally get Kortes’ songwriting – which some players can’t – but she also makes a good visual foil, two tall blondes bopping onstage and intertwining riffs.
Smartly, Kortes paired the warily triumphant garage-psych anthem Out From Under It with Learn From What I Dream, with its edgy chromatic riffage and 60s Laurel Canyon psych-folk ambience. Through the night, the dream world was a frequent reference point, considering that Kortes is also a compelling prose writer and editor, with a new book, Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob just out. Since Kortes has had more than a few (including a touching “don’t quit writing songs, no matter what” dream, as she explained to the crowd), it makes sense that she’d pull a collection like that together.
The best song of the night might have been Well by the Water, a corrosively metaphorical, lilting amthem that works on the innumerable, Elvis Costello-esque levels that Kortes loves so much, as apt a portrait of tightlipped Midwestern dysfunction as a history of human civilization itself. After that, the band stretched out in a bitingly bluesy take of Dylan’s Meet Me in the Morning – which Mary Lee’s Corvette famously recorded on their live cover of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album.
O’Riordan approached the slow, lingering bittersweet mini-epic Portland Michigan – a not-so-fond childhood reminiscence – with finesse but also as a search for impactful harmony, something few bass players do. They closed with a new song, a series of dreamscapes over a pulsing, Stonesy vamp – which Kortes used as a launching pad for her most spellbinding leaps of the night. Good to see this band back at a venue where they’ve put on similarly transcendent shows over the years.