REVIEW / Uppers and downers: Mary-Chapin Carpenter - Victoria Palace

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When Lucinda Williams was given the job of opening the show for her fellow country / folk act, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, she might have expected a little support herself, from the audience. No way. At 4.30 on Sunday afternoon the shy, gangly 40-year-old found herself entertaining a full house of British 'enthusiasts', ranked in their red velvet seats like so many of those inflatable passengers which American car drivers use to dodge the demands of the car-pool. In this atmosphere, the beautiful, pained tone of her recent release Sweet Old World, nasal yet rich in tremelo a la Dolly Parton, deserted her voice and after her half hour she slunk off to polite applause.

In complete contrast, Carpenter came bounding on with all the confidence of one whose recognition rating in the UK has soared ahead of her contemporary country peers, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith, in no small way due to her having apparently been given the freedom of The Late Show. She launched straight into 'The Hard Way', the first track on her latest CD, Come On Come On. Carpenter was born in Princeton to a Life magazine exec, grew up in Washington DC and attended the prestigious Browns University. So, for her, hard times are never going to be a matter of lost farms. Instead, her subjects are mid- thirties angst and Men, and she kick- started the set with her 'ex-boyfriend trilogy'. Next she picked out the gentle melody of 'You Win Again' (a ghostly dialogue with the ex's answering machine) and finally let her full voice catch the optimism of 'Going Out Tonight'.

One of the pleasures of Mary- Chapin Carpenter's music is that she doesn't bust a gut trying to sustain the rhetoric of insight that for so long characterised country & western lyrics. 'We've got two lives, the one we're given and the other one we make' is about as gnostic as it gets.

Luckily, in the good old tradition Carpenter likes to rock, and her band were well up to the task. The sight of a bassist being given his own 30 seconds for funky runs and slaps, followed by a lead guitarist in a suit soloing Hendrix-style behind his head would normally be quite preposterous. But in the context of a song such as 'Down At The Twist And Shout', anything goes, and went.

Carpenter skipped about in blue jeans and frock-coat and only dropped the pace again for the ballads 'Only A Dream' and 'The Moon And St Christopher,' just the versatile pianist John Carroll, a spotlight and herself, singing in a voice as pure as a flute.

She introduced the satirical 'He Thinks He'll Keep Her' with a story of its origin in an advertisement for the drug, Geritol, an over-the-counter upper. 'My wife - I think I'll keep her,' says the smarmy husband to the camera, and in the song the little lady walks out after 15 years . . . although not neccessarily to an easier life. Little touches of realism like this distinguish Carpenter in the genre, as does her easy rapport with the fans. At the evening show, evidently, she was moved to get into the crowd and sit in someone's lap while playing guitar.

It's a shame that Lucinda Williams doesn't have Carpenter's stage presence. She returned, looking deeply uneasy, to duet on the song she gave to Mary-Chapin, 'Passionate Kisses'. Williams looked like she needed the kiss of life. Carpenter could have sung both parts and given it.