As many an artist can attest, following one’s muse doesn’t always result in success. Such was the case for Maria McKee.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Little Diva, as she’s sometimes called, I can’t say that I’m surprised. In the 1980s, she fronted Lone Justice, a so-called “cowpunk” band from L.A. that never broke as big as they should have. Their best known song is likely the gospel-infused “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling),” written by Maria, Little Steven Van Zandt and Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers):
“Shelter,” from their second and final album, is another gem.
By 1993, she seemed destined to break big yet again, this time on the strength of her second solo album, You Gotta Sin to Get Saved. Such songs as “I’m Gonna Soothe You” –
– received airplay on radio stations that featured the then-hot alternative-country format, which was essentially the previous decade’s “cowpunk” filed under a cooler name. She headlined and sold out the TLA in Philly, which at the time held around a thousand.
Looking back, that album and tour may well have been the pinnacle of her success…and the cause of the death spiral that her career soon entered. One of her bandmates is said to have given her a mixtape he’d made of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and other glam and glitter acts of the early ‘70s. Whether that’s true, I don’t know, but this part is undisputed: She released the love-it-or-hate-it, glam-infested Life Is Sweet in 1996.
The title track is the most mainstream thing on it:
That song isn’t indicative of the album as a whole, in other words. That would likely be “Absolutely Barking Stars” –
Some fans, such as myself, found it a moody, mercurial and eccentric set, akin to a Flannery O’Connor novel put to music. A Southern (California) Gothic album, if you will. I loved it then and love it now, as this Essentials piece shows. Other folks, however…not so much. Within two years, the album was out of print and she was without a record company.
This night, the fourth stop on a five-city tour, was a way to test out new material for a forthcoming album (which would take 4 1/2 years to materialize) and, no doubt, make a little money. And I do mean little. Capacity at the Tin Angel is, at most, 125. It’s basically a long, thin hall fronted by a tiny stage; tables take up the bulk of the room, though stools dot one of the long walls. Diane and I, however, were not along the wall, but the table directly in front of Maria – maybe five feet away.
I wrote about it at the time for my former Old Grey Cat website, as well as Da Boot!, and provide a slightly tweaked version of that summary here:
Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she opened with the plaintive “Life Is Sweet,” a testament to life’s bittersweet truths. The potent “Promised Land,” one of six new songs she showcased, followed; and although a bassist and keyboard player joined her, the audience’s eyes remained riveted on her. “Something Similar,” another new one, was hypnotic.
One of the night’s memorable moments came early. At the piano, she bashed out the thick, angry chords of Life Is Sweet’s “I’m Not Listening” and possessed the sparse lyrics like a mad woman.
After “Am I the Only One,” she explained that the red-hot Dixie Chicks cover the song on their hit Wide Open Spaces CD, wishing them nothing but success. “It means I can make a record and do whatever I want,” she declared. In short, she’s a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll. She’s also a renegade from a record label – Geffen – that buried her best album. They wanted more of the same, for her to continue to mine a country-rock vein; she wanted to explore new terrain, to dig up skeletons and put them to rest, to lay it out in song.
It’s music for the psyche that she’s after; it’s music of and for the soul. It’s “Worrybirds,” the night’s encore, about nagging self-doubt:
In Philadelphia, if only for a night, Maria McKee exorcised her demons; I’m grateful to have been a witness.