Carrie Newcomer — Maurer Hall at Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago 10/24
by Brian DeSpain
Hope and resiliency are at the heart of Carrie Newcomer’s message about the “great unraveling” – her term she uses for the personal struggles during the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Newcomer’s recent album, Until Now [10 Sept 2021] formed the core of her Maurer Hall set at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, with seven of the album’s ten tracks represented. A few more from The Beautiful Not Yet (2016) neatly stitched together as the companions in overcoming.
The positive aspirations of her message began with “Lean Into the Light” and with a very apparent change of season in Chicago on October 24, ”The Handing Over Time” was fitting with the threshold of autumn being reached.
Newcomer spoke of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. She mentioned a walk in the woods with her husband, a moment which would have been precluded by her regular tour schedule. “A couple months in the lockdown, I was home more than in a previous 25 year stretch,” she said.
Her husband streamed the song “You Send Me” (Sam Cooke), put the phone in his shirt pocket and they danced under the tree canopy. Newcomer then performed the song which wasn’t on the setlist for the evening.
“A Long Way Up” figures as the heart of the evening conversation. This is where the “great unraveling” is contained in lyrics. This is a song of gratitude and determination: “we’re gonna climb this ladder rung by rung, we’re gonna count our blessings one by one.” Newcomer said it’s “a song of grace about the immediate space we occupy.”
As she does on a few occasions, Carrie Newcomer diverts from the contemplative to add dashes of humor. She tells the crowd about getting in her own way and having a sense of humor about it in “Throwing Rocks at the Moon.”
An advanced song request moved the inspirational “You Can Do This Hard Thing” sooner into the set. With Newcomer having a heart for social justice, this 2016 song just as easily fits into the challenges faced under the “pandy” lockdown.
Until Now is a collection of poems. Some are songs. Those which aren’t are contained in a companion book of poetry, Until Now: New Poems.
Newcomer’s first reading was “What You Won’t Hear From Cable News” and here she says “The world still turns on an axis of goodness and unexpected grace” rarely found during the 24/7 news cycle.
Another break in the serious comes with “My Dog” from the new album. The song is about her dog’s view of her and Newcomer is “trying to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Levity is achieved with the responding laughter from the crowd.
Among many of Newcomer’s collaborations is a podcast with Parker Brown. She tells he once quipped, “You’re a Molly Brown” which inspired the title of the next song in the set “Like Molly Brown” which tacks to social justice struggles.
Newcomer says justice may not be seen in our lifetime. Appropriating the “rowing” of Molly Brown as metaphor, “Rowing is more of an orientation than a destination” and cites the efforts of Rosa Parks, RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Lucretia Mott in the song.
A second aspect of Newcomer’s vision is in “When the Wolf Is at the Door” – using the difficult for transformation. “In a time of great disruption, we have a great opportunity. We don’t change so easily or shift direction unless something big happens. Then we see how connected we are in deep and human ways, she said. “We don’t have to just be healed, we can be transformed.”
Returning to the theme of the immediate space we occupy, Newcomer mentions not being able to change the whole world. In “Three Feet or So” we can change the space immediately around us.
The emergence of livestream shows presented an especially unique moment for Newcomer. Her husband, Robert Meitus, is a co-founder of Mandolin and she performed the beta test for the online broadcast platform. One of her longtime music collaborators, Gary Walter, performed with her during the subsequent Mandolin livestreams and his piano playing was present at Maurer Hall.
Walter performed a shortened rendition of “Bounce” from his jazz album The Covid Sessions [9 May 2021] before Carrie Newcomer and another longtime collaborator, violinist Allie Summers, returned to the stage.
Comfort in difficult times is presented with “Sanctuary” from The Beautiful Not Yet, a delicate piano-driven song.
A bit of the natural world becomes a friend in “I Give Myself to This.” Before the song, she talks about the bird feeder with cardinals and a tree in the back yard as ways to stay connected to nature. The song reminds “The forest has a different sense of time than yours of mine.” There is peace in those moments from the hustle and bustle of human endeavor.
Newcomer’s last poetry reading for the evening is “Sing” and then she introduces “I Will Sing a New Song” as based on a meditation written by Howard Thurman. Her comment, “Don’t you love it when mystic theologians get a mention” was met with hearty laughter.
Encores “Room at the Table” and her most noted song, “The Gathering of Spirits” followed.
Then Newcomer rounded out the evening with audience participation with a cover of “I’ll Be Seeing You” — a reminder that we are all connected.
Find tour dates and more information about Carrie Newcomer here: https://www.carrienewcomer.com