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No Pretending: Shelby Lynne at Annapolis’ Rams Head Tavern, Aug. 13

August 16, 2010

Shelby Lynne has such a big, tough soprano on record that it’s always a surprise to see her on stage and remember she’s just a small slip of a thing. At the Rams Head Tavern Friday night, she wore a purple T-shirt and her red hair chopped short but for a swirl of a bang. Accompanied only by her own acoustic guitar and the various guitars of her duo-mate John Jackson, she needed to rely on that large voice to fill the room. She had no problem.

Her second number was a spry swing number, “Why Didn’t You Call Me?” The lyrics were aimed at an absent lover, but they could just as easily have been targeted at a music industry that has never quite known what to do with this Alabama fireball whose expressive voice and idiosyncratic interpretations make her one of the most fascinating vocalists in American music. One of her artistic assets and commercial liabilities is her inability to sit comfortably in any one genre; she began as a mainstream country singer, became a pop-jazz swinger, was repackaged as a roots-rock hipster, and recently recorded an album of Dusty Springfield songs slowed down to maximize their latent blues.

So Lynne–the older sister of Allison Moorer and thus the sister-in-law of Steve Earle–left the big labels behind and released her latest album, Tears, Lies, and Alibis, on her own label. It’s a terrific CD, featuring the above song, the ballad lament “Like a Fool,” the drinking song “Old #7,” and the ode to the open road, “Something to Be Said About Airstreams.” She sang all these titles in Annapolis Friday, stretching out syllables in yearning and then collapsing them in regret. She also reached back to older tunes such as 2005’s “Johnny Met June” (a heartfelt tribute to Johnny Cash and June Carter), 2001’s “Jesus on a Greyhound” (about an unexpected seatmate on a cross-country bus), and Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.”

A big part of the show was Jackson’s remarkable guitar fills and solos, which created such a rhythmic and richly textured context for the songs that you didn’t really miss the absent band. Jackson, who toured with Bob Dylan’s band from 1991-1997, is one of those musical treasures hidden away in plain sight in Nashville. Ultimately, though, the show belonged to Lynne, who appeared liberated by the stripped-down duo format to explore nuances that sometimes get lost in studio production. When she sang “Pretend,” for example, she pleaded with all her purring persuasion for an ex-lover to at least pretend that he still loved her, but she also emitted a moaning undercurrent to acknowledge the foolishness of the request.

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