Band camp: Erin McKeown to celebrate anniversary of debut album with virtual, fireside show

  • Erin McKeown in her early 20s, posing for her “Distillation” album. She says she and her producer Dave Chalfant “did a lot of laughing when we made that record.” COURTESY ERIN MCKEOWN  

  • Over the years, McKeown has mostly played electric guitar in her live gigs, but she says she has returned to the acoustic guitar during the pandemic. Photo by Anastasia Sonfronova/courtesy Erin McKeown

  • McKeown in the early days of her career; “Distillation,” her first full album, was released in October 2000. COURTESY ERIN MCKEOWN  

  • “Distillation” was recorded in Amherst a little over 20 years ago and was issued in October 2000. McKeown says a number of cuts from the album have remained a regular part of her live shows over the years.

Staff Writer
Published: 9/23/2020 11:49:21 AM

In the fall and winter of 1999-2000, Erin McKeown was still a student at Brown University when she began coming out to the Valley on weekends to record the songs for her first full studio record, “Distillation,” on the Valley’s Signature Sounds label.

And while she had yet to finish her undergraduate degree — in ethnomusicology — McKeown was no musical beginner. She’d already been performing around New England for a couple years at open mics, small folk clubs and other venues, showing off some deft guitar work and varied musical influences that made her very different from the conventional singer-songwriter.

“Distillation” showcased more of the same: swing and old-style jazz, show tunes, folk-pop, and a bit of rock, with songs like “Blackbirds” and “Queen of Quiet” built around distinctive guitar riffs (electric and acoustic), and piano, washboard and sampler percolating through other tracks.

McKeown, a multi-instrumentalist who now lives in Franklin County, says “Distillation” has long had a special place in her heart, even as she has gone on to make very different albums and to write for musical theater. On Oct. 10, to mark the exact day “Distillation” was released 20 years ago, she’ll perform a virtual show of the album with her longtime friend Dave Chalfant, who produced and played on the disc.

In a recent phone call from her home, McKeown noted that she’d been scheduled to play a couple “Distillation” shows with Chalfant at The Parlor Room in Northampton in late March, before the pandemic shut things down; a rescheduled show in late June at the club also was canceled.

“So now we’re going to do it in a different way, but in way that feels really good,” she said. “I’m going to have a campfire in my yard, and Dave and I will sit on opposite sides of it to do our social distancing … It will be two friends playing acoustic guitar by a fire and having fun.”

The show, which takes place at 7 p.m., will be live-streamed via multiple cameras, McKeown says, and will have monitors giving viewers an opportunity to watch the show from different angles and also see each other. It’s part of a live-streamed series of shows, called “Cabin Fever,” that she’s offered periodically from her home for about the past decade.

McKeown performed some “Distillation” shows in 2010 to mark the album’s 10th anniversary, in part to introduce the record to some of her newer fans. But she recalls that elements of that tour, like playing the songs note for note from the album, in retrospect didn’t feel right and “didn’t really reflect where I was at that point in my career.”

But, she added, “People who discovered my music through this record have pretty strong feelings about it, and I feel the same way about it. I did want to get back to it again at some point.”

She also notes that certain tunes from the album, such as “Queen of Quiet,” have long been part of her set lists, even as she has gone on to record multiple albums and write music and lyrics for an acclaimed 2018 musical, “Miss You Like Hell,” that she produced with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.

Given that McKeown and Chalfant have a long musical history together — he has performed with her in regional gigs over the years — the two friends are comfortable in approaching the songs on “Distillation” more flexibly and playing them in modified ways, McKeown said: “We find it really easy to play with each other.”

At the Oct. 10 show, she and Chalfant will play the 11 songs in sequence, introducing each with a bit of background on how the music came together. Also part of the evening will be a Q&A session with the musicians and audience as well as a screening of a short documentary by Holyoke filmmaker Piper Preston about the making of “Distillation.”

Chalfant, a Northampton resident who previously lived in Conway, was living in Amherst when he recorded “Distillation” in his home, and McKeown remembers what a tight-knit space it was.

“We did the recording in the living room, and the control room was in a bedroom up above it,” she said. “The drums were recorded in a kind of pantry space. We used every inch of that house, and the film shows that.”

Though McKeown, like many other musicians, has lost a number of live gigs to the pandemic, she says she’s used the time for other things: leading online workshops in songwriting, completing much of the initial work for her next album, and also working for the U.S. Census Bureau. Last year, she taught songwriting for musical theater at Brown, and she’ll be teaching there again starting in January. “I assume at the moment that it will be online,” she said.

Tickets for the “Distillation” show are $20 and can be ordered at eventbrite.com/e/distillation-20th-anniversary-tickets-118969303389 and through erinmckeown.com. And if it rains Oct. 10? “Hopefully we can go up on my porch to play,” McKeown said with a laugh. “But I think it’s going to be a magical night.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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