Jul 17, 2010

Our Songs: The Mat Kearney Concert

Mat Kearney sings his soul at the Alban, Saturday, July 10, 2010, St. Albans, West Virginia.

It just occured to me that live music has been a important part of the romance between Barbara and me. It's not immediately obvious as we've never been regular concertgoers, but then in Saipan there's not much to be had in terms of concerts beyond the local bar bands. But nonetheless, from the very beginnning "our songs" have been played live. Our first real date was to the best concert I've ever attended, a Rich Mullins show in South Bend, Indiana. In the years that followed we saw Michael W. Smith, Twila Paris, Jars of Clay, Michael Card, Caedmon's Call, and Rich Mullins (again) among others. Sometimes we went with friends, more often it was just the two of us--a drive to some far-flung town, dinner at a new restaurant, holding hands when we weren't clapping along to songs we loved by artists we admire. This has been the archetypical date night for us--a date night we hadn't had in years, until last weekend. So it was somehow appropriate that the artist we would be seeing is the one who sings "our songs." You know how some couples have "their song." Well, we have a whole album's worth of songs that are "ours"--all tunes by the one artist Babs and I are equally enthusiastic about--Mat Kearney.

Our first "real" date since Elijah was born was Saturday evening, July 10, to a Mat Kearney concert in the little town of St. Albans, West Virginia. On Sabbath afternoon, Barbara's parents came up from Dayton, with Barbara's sister, Jenny and her two dogs in tow. (Matt, Jenny's husband, is still in Minnesota closing up shop. Jenny got a new job in Cincinnati and they will be relocating there. Until their house sells, Jenny is staying with her parents in Dayton and Matt is in Minnesota). After providing them with detailed instructions for the Feller's care, the two of us jumped in the car and started for West Virginia. I was a little anxious about leaving Elijah. This would be the longest we'd both been apart from him, both in terms of time and distance. But after a few cell phone calls back home and receiving assurances that our son was doing just fine, I relaxed and enjoyed the drive.

And it was a beautiful drive. We headed southeast on OH-33 and within the hour the landscape changed dramatically the flat farmland giving way to rolling hills. Virtually all of the drive was on the old system of state roads and U.S. highways instead of the Interstate highways. You can't drive as fast on these roads that predate freeway travel--sometimes you're cruising along at 65 mph, but a few miles down the road, you're slowed by traffic lights and residential speed limits as you cruise through a small town. But in exchange for longer travel time you gain atmosphere--beautiful countryside, bucolic little towns, picturesque slices of Americana (On this jaunt through America's heartland I actually did see a Mail Pouch tobacco poster on the side of rotting barn, just like in the Rich Mullins song). The time seemed to fly by--Babs talked to my sister Dawn and to Carol, our friend from Saipan, on the cell, putting them on speakerphone so I could listen in. When we weren't talking on the phone, we played Mat Kearney tunes as a primer for the evening's concert, talked, and marveled at the beauty around us. We drove through the Hocking Hills, traced the Ohio River, and finally crossed into West Virginia about 40 miles from St. Albans.

A glimplse of the green hills of West Virginia from Main Street., St. Albans.

St. Albans is a charming little town nestled in the Appalachian foothills about fifteen miles from Charleston, the state capital. Like many small towns across America it seems to have seen better days. Babs and I arrived in St. Albans just before eight o'clock in the evening and walked Main Street a little bit before the concert. There were empty storefronts, and even the stores that were still in business seemed to be relics from another time.

Looking up Main Street, St. Albans, WV.

The heart of Main Street is the Alban the tiny old theater that was the venue for the concert. We couldn't figure out how Mat Kearney ended up at this little town in this theater so small that with door open, you could stand on the street and hear the performers on stage. There's no nearby college town or enclave of urban ex-patriots to explain the St. Alban's art scene--it would appear that Kearney's concert was simply the work of St. Albanians determined to keep the arts and culture alive in their town. We only spent a few hours in St. Albans, West Virginia, but I came away impressed by the spirit of this town--small but proud, open-hearted and open-minded.

St. Albans Celebrates the Arts (with high-quality recording artists, I might add)

The pride of Alban's art scene, the little Alban theater.

After our little walking tour, as the Sabbath faded with the sunset, we drifted into the Alban, arriving just after the opening act Jane Carrey (daughter of the famed Hollywood actor Jim Carrey) had left the stage. In a little place like this any seat would have been a good one, but we were able to find really good seats, on the left side of the stage, six rows back from the front. Seated next to us was a teacher from St. Albans who was working at a school in Saudia Arabia--a kindred spirit! His date was an aspiring jazz singer who would herself be singing at the Alban later this year.

Mat slipped on to stage with little fanfare, joined by only his friend and guitarist Tyler Burkum. What followed was a little more than an hour of Mat's finest work.

A relatively new artist, Mat Kearney has rapidly ascended the ranks of my favorite music to inhabit the rarified air occupied by U2 and Rich Mullins. I first heard his major label debut Nothing Left to Lose in the summer of 2007 and was instantly blown away. Mat’s music on that album was a perfect and original combination of rich, warm acoustic guitar, the occasional smooth rhythms of hip-hop style rhymes, and poetic, literary lyrics. I’d never heard anything like it before and was instantly hooked. During our annual week of teacher’s meetings in Hawaii that summer, Mat was in heavy rotation. To this day every time I hear the buoyant thrum of “Undeniable” it takes me right back to the drives over the mountains from Honolulu to Kailua. I hear “Nothing Left to Lose” was and I remember walking on hand in hand with my favorite girl along Waikiki ten years along into our journey together.

Later that year, J sent me some of Mat’s earliest work—songs like “Chicago”, “Memorial Stones”, and the song that has become my Favorite Song of All Time, the Theme Song of My Life, “Lifetime.” This “old-school” song (as Mat himself described it to me) is from his earliest days as a recording artist and is quite hard to find now. Unfortunately, I can’t post a link to YouTube because there isn’t one—that’s how rare it is—but I can direct you here to an 2007 entry where I posted the lyrics to this powerful song.

Mat emerged from too-cool-for-Christian-Contemporary-music obscurity when Grey’s Anatomy picked up one of his songs for their soundtrack. His heartfelt singer/songwriter vibe seemed to be a good match for the show and several songs of his ended up being played in various episodes. The Grey’s exposure thrust Mat into the mainstream limelight and his fan base expanded dramatically. His sophomore album, City of Black and White released last year, reflected this expansion with a more commercial sound and the retirement of the rapping over guitar chords that had been a key to his earlier style. Still, the melodies on these new songs were some of the best he’d ever written and the lyrics remained solidly literate, truthful, and fresh.

For this tour, Mat explained that he’d decided to go back to basics—a simple acoustic tour, just him and Tyler in a van criss-crossing the country playing at a bunch of tiny venues like the Alban. Ours was the first show of the tour, and I imagine Mat might have been tempted to question the wisdom of this idea. Many of the people in the audience were unfamiliar with his music and the sing-a-longs fell a little flat. But I felt we couldn’t have been any luckier to see Mat in this setting. Here he’d hit the big time, and we still had a chance to see him as if he were just starting out. And I’m confident that St. Albans was a fluke—the show scheduled for the next night in Ann Arbor, Michigan sold out weeks ago (we had intended to go that one but the tickets were gone by the time we were ready to buy)—and I’m willing to bet throughout the rest of this tour the sing-alongs will be drowning Mat out. I was impressed with how Mat handled the unexpected unfamiliarity of most of our audience with his work. He was funny, friendly, poked fun at himself, and won the crowd over with his charm and undeniable musical talent and songwriting chops. He may have had few fans in the audience when he began, but certainly had a roomful when he finished.

In keeping with the old-school theme, Mat’s set list was stacked with older material—a lot of material from his first album, a few from even before that, a handful of new songs, and only two tunes-“All I Have” and “Closer to Love” from City of Black and White. He even delivered a fantastic cover of the Bruce Springsteen classic “Dancing in the Dark.”

Here’s the set list, with links where available to the songs on YouTube. Listen! I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
1. All I Have
2. Crashing Down
3. Girl America
4. Breathe In, Breathe Out
5. In the Middle
6. What’s a Boy to Do
7. Chicago
8. Undeniable
9. All I Need
10. Closer to Love
11. Rochester
12. Dancing in the Dark

13. a new song whose title I couldn’t figure out.
14. Nothing Left to Lose

Despite occasional technical mishaps here and there, the show was excellent. My only complaint is that it was too short. Mat played for just over one hour and I would have been happy for a second. But I guess that’s the sign of a good show, when you’re left wishing for more. I highly recommend this tour. Click here to see if he is coming to a city near you, and if the show hasn’t sold out already, GO! You’ll be glad you did.

This video is not from the St. Alban's show; it's from the show the following night up in Ann Arbor at a venue called the Ark. I took two videos, one of the song above, "Undeniable" and one other, but both turned out terribly. The digital camera we had did a terrible job of recording the sound clearly and it is literally unlistenable. I'm quite disappointed, not least because in an amazing feat of lyrical prowess Mat added an extended rap to the end of this song that included virtually everything he'd learned from the audience that evening. Small as the venue was, Mat was able to actually interact with individual members of the audience between songs. All of those littler interactions he turned around into an impromptu rap. Amazing. I got the whole thing, but unfortunately the sound is so bad you can't understand a word he's saying. I don't know if he did the same thing in Michigan the next night, as this video cuts out partway through the song, but at any rate it will give you a sense of what the show was like for us.

The Merch. I decided to buy Mat's latest release, a four song EP on sale only on this tour and available only on old-school vinyl. I don't have a record player, but I bought it anyway, not least for the achingly beautiful ballad, "Rochester", a tribute to Mat's father. I figured I'd find a record player and a way to get it copied on to a format I can listen to. I've heard that musicians make most of their money from touring so I wanted to be sure I did my part to support one of my favorite artists and bought a T-shirt as well.

Babs and me with the man himself, Mat Kearney after the show. He was gracious and friendly in the few brief minutes we talked to him. To all appeareances not only is Mat Kearney a great musician and songwriter but a good guy as well.

So with an autographed record in one hand, Babs hand, soft and warm in the other, and Kearney’s tunes still playing in our heads, we headed out into the balmy West Viriginia night. The show had ended earlier than we had expected, and on the one hand we were tempted to hop in the car and go straight home, getting back to our little boy as quick as we could. On the other hand, this night was special—a rare opportunity to feel like we were college kids in love again. It seemed too early to call it a night. We decided to go with that feeling and hunted up a local diner called Dwight’s for a late dinner. The food was okay, but the folks were friendly and helpful—both staff and fellow diners. An older couple sitting at the next booth over even took the time to help us figure out directions for the drive back home.

Overall, it was a special memorable evening, made so most of all by the woman I got to spend the evening with. Without her the songs just wouldn't be the same.

Me n Babs.


Mai said...

That's awesome that you got to meet him!!! I'll always associate him with you because you're the one who first introduced his music to me after the summer of 2007. I remember listening to that first album over and over and over again while I was getting ready for that second school year! Good memories!! :)

Sean said...

He's coming to Vancouver, Mai. I think you need to go see him!