Mary Chapin Carpenter tackled many different moods with her band at The Egg’s Hart Theatre Friday night — from contemplation, to sadness, to full-throttle rock ’n’ roll joy. But above all, the evening’s theme was one of triumph.
Carpenter’s latest album, “Ashes and Roses,” is all about triumph over adversity — the album was inspired by a series of difficult events in Carpenter’s life leading up to the record, including her pulmonary embolism in 2007, her recent divorce and the death of her father.
She included most of the album in her two-hour set this night, framing the evening around the record’s narrative arc from darkness into light. And for the most part, Carpenter succeeded, weaving old songs in with the new and taking the nearly two-thirds full audience on a redemptive journey through her demons.
Initially this approach took some getting used to. “Ashes and Roses” is a much different album for Carpenter — lyrically more mature and introspective, musically far more downbeat. Carpenter took the stage solo for opening number “Chasing What’s Already Gone,” with her band members slowly trickling onstage as the song progressed. “I Tried Going West” and “Transcendental Reunion” continued to set a darker mood, with the band playing conservatively behind Carpenter’s chords and words.
The night-and-day juxtaposition came with “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and “Passionate Kisses,” two of Carpenter’s most well-known songs, immediately following. Here, the band cut loose and for the first time in the evening showed what it could really do — longtime guitarist John Jennings and pianist Jon Carroll in particular hit a great groove on “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
After another upbeat number, “The Way I Feel,” Carpenter and company dove back into “Ashes and Roses” for three songs. “What to Keep and What to Throw Away” was more tongue-in-cheek, while both “Learning the World” and “Another Home” gave Carpenter fine showcases for her vocals, which have aged quite well.
From here, the mood lightened considerably and the band kicked things up another notch. Late set highlights included “I Feel Lucky,” with Jennings and second guitarist Jim Henry firing licks back and forth. The two got even more room to play around on “Girls With Guitars,” hands down the highest-energy song the band performed all evening.
The main set closed with a few more “Ashes and Roses” numbers, with the bouncy “Soul Companion” in particular providing a satisfying and upbeat close to the larger narrative. A final jam on “I Take My Chances,” with opener Tift Merritt returning to join the band, ended the main set on a bright note.
North Carolina singer-songwriter Merritt, no stranger to the Capital Region, played a low-key acoustic set heavy on material from her soon-to-be-released album, “Traveling Alone” — the traditional-minded title track played mid-set was a highlight, as well as set closer “I’ll Stay on Another Couple Days.” She was accompanied quite handily by Eric Heywood, who switched between slide and acoustic guitar depending on the song. His haunting slide playing provided soulful color on set opener “Sweet Spot” and the hushed “Spring,” which also featured one of Merritt’s finest vocal performances of the evening.
Other highlights included “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight” early in the set, with Merritt pushing her voice on the choruses. After this great performance, Merritt might want to think about bringing her band along the next time she passes through the Capital Region.
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