Hurricane Irene wiped out Mary Chapin Carpenter’s annual summer appearance at Wolf Trap. But the beloved singer-songwriter made it up to fans with a two-night stand at the Birchmere.
“Sometimes disasters work out for the good,” Carpenter said Monday night. Given her deep local roots, she added that it was “extraordinarily wonderful to be back on this stage.”
As if to extend the good vibes, Carpenter opened with the Cajun-flavored fave “Down At the Twist and Shout,” and followed with optimistic cuts like “A Keeper For Every Flame,” “Beautiful Racket” and “On and On It Goes.”
The sustained buoyancy was as unacceptable as it was uncharacteristic. “That was four, count ’em four, positive songs in a row,” joked Carpenter. “That’s a record, and I can’t let it continue.”
The middle of her nearly two-hour set highlighted Carpenter’s evolution from force-fitted country hitmaker to the thoughtful, searching social chronicler she eventually became.
On the languid “Grand Central Station,” Carpenter stepped into the boots of an urban working-class male. “Houston” followed a Hurricane Katrina victim into an anxious future in Texas. “Mrs. Hemingway,” a formalist piano ballad in waltz time, imagined the initial flush of Parisian romance for novelist Ernest Hemingway and his first wife.
“I can say I was lucky most days,” Carpenter sang, at once sweetly and forebodingly. Hard luck — in love and life generally — always lurks in the interstices of her songs.
Carpenter alluded to her personal share of hardship (she suffered a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism in 2007) to introduce “Don’t Need Much To Be Happy,” a stock-taking of life’s bare physical and emotional necessities.
To confirm as well as dispel the evening’s narrative of doom, Carpenter reeled off this year’s litany of natural disasters — “fires, floods, hurricanes, the economy” — and added this zinger: “Sarah Palin’s bus tour.”
Backed by bandmates like longtime guitarist collaborator John Jennings, pianist Jon Carroll, drummer Vince Santoro, bassist Don Dixon and guitarist Jim Henry — consummate accompanists all — Carpenter delivered early hits such as “Passionate Kisses,” “I Take My Chances” and “The Hard Way,” the latter sporting a mesmerizingly spacious alternative arrangement.
During the encore, she strapped on a Rickenbacker electric guitar for the signature folk-rock jangle of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” She walked off with “Why Shouldn’t We,” a stirring call to humanist idealism. “We believe in things that will give us hope,” Carpenter sang, all but wishing to trade the misery of ’11 for the seemingly better times of ’08.