“This is satire,” Rachael Kilgour grinned as she launched into He’ll Save Me, the spot-on, searingly funny centerpiece of her most recent ep, Whistleblower’s Manifesto: Songs for a New Revolution, at her headline debut earlier this month at Lincoln Center .She explained that there have been instances where booking agents heard snippets of her music and passed on her, thinking that she was a Christian songwriter. Testament to the power of that satire.
“Mothers on welfare? Healthcare? Don’t you think I know better than to hand out rewards to sinners?” she sang as laughter broke out everywhere. And the punchline,“I know I’ll get my way, when it comes to Judgment Day,” was as subtly sinister as Kilgour possibly could have made it. Considering that she was following a brief performance by a generic folkie from Philadelphia whose own brand of corporate Prosperity Christianity that song lampoons, it made even more of an impact. It’s hard to think of a more deliciously subversive moment on any midtown Manhattan stage in 2016.
.While there are echoes of both Tift Merritt and Loretta Lynn in Kilgour’s resonant, nuanced mezzo-soprano, the closest comparison is Roy Orbison: Kilgour soars upward into the same kind of otherworldly, angst-ridden melismas. And she has the material to match that transcendent voice. The ache and anguish as she hit the chorus of Round and Round – which she sang a-cappella at the end, to drive it home – held the crowd rapt. Likewise, I Pray, a tender wish song for a lost soul, gave Kilgour a platform to swoop up into her most Orbisonesque chorus. Later she went back to simmeringly savage mode for a number that was ostensibly about forgiveness but turned out to be more of a kiss-off anthem. And In America, another satirical one where she finally dropped the smiley-faced Republican ingenue act for reality, drew the night’s most applause.
The two most heartwrenching numbers were dedicated to her stepdaughter. Kilgour herself teared up during the first one, and by the time she was done, there probably wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. Kilgour explained that she’d gone through a divorce a couple of years ago, “And that sucked!” She related how her earlier material has a populist, global focus, and that writing herself through the pain was a new experience, one that she’s still getting used to. Kilgour wants to break down the barriers between performer and audience, which harks back to a hallowed folk music tradition, where pretty much everybody in the village was in the band. Ultimately, that leads to the kind of community-building Kilgour has focused on thus far in her relatively young career.
In context, the gallows humor of the catchy, swaying Will You Marry Me took on new and unintentionally ironic resonance. The rest of the set mixed low-key, simmering ballads with the kind of anthemic acoustic rock Kilgour does so well, many of the numbers drawn from her brand-new album Rabbit in the Road.
These free Lincoln Center Atrium shows, as the space’s program director, Jordana Phokompe explained beforehand, are designed to offer something for everyone. And she’s right – they do. Tonight’s performance at 7:30 PM features ecstatically fun Colombian-American psychedelic cumbia band MAKU Soundsystem. Considering how well their previous Lincoln Center performances have drawn, you should get to the space on Broadway between 62nd and 63rd early if you’re going.