Susan McKeown really came into her own on Saturday at the Eighth Step at Proctors 440 Upstairs Theater.
In previous visits, the Dublin-born singer has performed as the more-than-capable foil to Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham, who died just days after their last local gig together at The Egg several years ago.
Her second song on Saturday offered a powerful clue: “In London So Fair,” she explained, told the tale of a woman dressing up in men’s clothing and running away — intrepidly taking control of her destiny, in short.
McKeown brought expert help to take control of her music: Irish guitarist Aidan Brennan and New York bassist Lindsey Horner (of the Klezmatics) provided sturdy and flexible accompaniment. When McKeown played bodhran beats, the trio echoed the great British folk combo Pentangle in its supple rhythms and compact arrangements.
Some were more compact than others: When Brennan broke a string while tuning in the first set and left the stage for repairs, McKeown and Horner jumped without hesitation into “Blue Moon” as McKeown relied on the rock-solid foundation of Horner’s bass — she called him her “secret jazz weapon” — to sing all around the melody as well as within it.
McKeown proved herself both folklorist and innovator, singing ancient folk ballads such as “Eggs in Her Basket” and immersing herself in their stories but also challenging tradition in original songs about what she called the “upheaval” in Ireland.
Her “Glory” and “Wheels of the World” aimed explosive words at hypocrisy and entrenched power, and she sounded genuinely angry. She cited her work with the Klezmatics on completing Woody Guthrie songs to introduce “The Best I Can” — Guthrie’s words, her music — about hope.
That theme re-emerged in the second set, as did other elements from the first. Her first number after the break urged “Be Brave, Be Strong,” promising “the best is yet to come.” “To Fair London Town” mirrored “In London So Fair,” in waltz time and with an arco bass solo.
“It Was Me” propelled an anti-war message, followed by a fox’s account of a fox hunt.
The new originals she introduced in the second set — she recently returned to songwriting after the Klezmatics/Guthrie sojourn — mused on love. “Could This Be Our Texas?” mixed hope with caution, “The Things In Your Heart” urged self-forgiveness, “In the City of the Roses” sketched a purely romantic reverie and the older “River” returned to her theme of hopefulness. A delicious bass-and-vocal duet encore on the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” returned to the jazz adventurousness she first explored on Saturday in “Blue Moon.”
McKeown seemed completely happy while singing but held her pitch and phrasing even when smiling through the lyrics.
If the trio seemed impromptu at times — Brennan had to ask Horner what key “In the City of the Roses” was in — they negotiated McKeown’s tunes with impressive confidence and skill. Folk ballads sounded venerable but not stiff, and new tunes felt both well-rooted and contemporary.
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