Our stop at the Boot & Saddle to see Juliana Hatfield two weeks back reminded me of the North Star Bar, where I saw the Absolutely Sweet Maria McKee on her much-anticipated (by me, at least) High Dive tour. The Boot & Saddle, for those who’ve never been there, is your basic bar with a sizable backroom and stage; and the North Star, which closed in October 2015, was your basic bar with a sizable side room and stage. Both fit about the same number of bodies, I think: 150, maybe 200 if the fire marshal’s not looking. The main difference: at the North Star, at least on this night, the sound from the bar bled into the music room.
At the time, the Little Diva and her band were on tour in support of High Dive, her first release since her genre-bending 1996 album Life Is Sweet. Gone, still, was the country-rock overtones of her early days; instead, the CD tempered the glam and glitter of Life with elements of baroque and operatic rock. To quote (and lightly edit) the review I left on Amazon in 2006: “The tracks, in total and apart, have a narcotic-like effect; one listen and you’ll be hooked. ‘In Your Constellation’ has a Neil Young-like vibe, a la ‘Like a Hurricane,’ that sends me flying into the stratosphere and higher; ‘Be My Joy’ is, well, just plain intoxicating; and the dramatic ‘Non Religious Building’ is as potent as songs come. I was hesitant about the remake of ‘Life Is Sweet’/‘Afterlife’ … but, ya know what? It’s as good as the original – and the backing vocals are to die for, both there and elsewhere. My album of the year for 2003.”
As Diane can attest, I played it the way I play most albums I fall for – over and over again. In the month and a half between its April 22nd release and this show…did I listen to anything else? Of my own accord, no. With Diane? Yes. (Such sacrifices are what sustain a marriage, after all.) By the night of the show, I was primed. Bouncing-off-the-walls primed. Maybe Maria’s career hadn’t taken flight in the way she’d hoped since Life Is Sweet, but the new music she was making meant (and still means) as much to me as the alt.country prototype she built with Lone Justice and on her first two solo albums.
Anyway, of the show: Certain memories survive. I remember her guitar soaring through “Absolutely Barking Stars” along with her voice, which – I swear – felt like a ghost inhabiting my body. It was deliciously intense, in other words. Here she is playing it a few months later in Hamburg (from the 2004 Live in Hamburg CD):
“High Dive,” as on album, was brilliant:
“Shelter,” one of my all-time favorite songs, was another highlight. Here she is from a few years later performing it:
“Breathe,” too, was mesmerizing – but when is it not? It was sparse and dramatic, similar to this performance from 14 years earlier (but minus the cello)…
“In Your Constellation” was simply phenomenal; it swirled like the cosmos through the room. Afterwards, she talked about Bruce Springsteen and his influence on her music, singing a snippet of… “Rosalita,” says Diane…before launching into a dramatic reading of his “Candy’s Room.”
The philosophical “Something Similar” closed the main portion of her set.
Unlike the Boot & Saddle, where the entrance to the stage is basically through the audience, the North Star Bar had stairs with a slight overhang leading off the stage. As Maria and band were leaving, she hit her head – a loud thwack followed by her “ow!” echoed through the room. She returned a few moments later – and sang a song so good she recorded it twice: “Life Is Sweet.” She then left the stage, no doubt making sure to duck before descending the steps.
The (possible) set:
- I Can’t Make It Alone
- Absolutely Barking Stars
- From Our TV Teens to the Tombs
- High Dive
- Be My Joy
- To the Open Spaces
- Dixie Storms
- Non Religious Building
- I’m Awake
- In Your Constellation
- Candy’s Room
- Something Similar
- (Encore) Life Is Sweet