Kathleen Edwards bared her soul at the Kessler Theater on Wednesday night
Vulnerability has its limits. Musicians, especially those adept at digging into their own life stories, can grow weary of taking another infinitesimal part of themselves and sharing it, with open hands and hearts, with an audience that can or not accept it. By sparing nothing, be it happiness or agony, some of the world’s most art-prone souls can sacrifice almost anything.
All of this, admittedly, reads a bit into the words spoken by Kathleen Edwards as she stood on a Dallas stage for the first time in 11 years on Wednesday night, between the third and fourth songs of her 70-minute set at the Kessler Theater. . (The performance was originally scheduled to take place in late May but was postponed due to a diagnosis of COVID-19 within the tour.)
“I haven’t been to Texas in a long time because I quit the music business altogether,” Edwards said. “It’s a tough life; you really live in a difficult headspace.
Edwards’ catalog, which dates back to its beginnings in 2002, Failure, is unflinchingly built on calling it what she sees it – her words don’t let anyone, let alone herself, off the hook. When laid to heady melodies drawn from country, folk, pop and rock, these often invigorating ideas, which are conveyed sparingly, can mask the sensibility of steel wool.
Simply put, Edwards can break your heart even when you smile.
His comeback, both in the form of his 2020 LP Total freedom and in an intimate Dallas performance space, was a welcome chance to once again bask in the gifts of the 43-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter. (The fact that Edwards was greeted with such a lackluster turnout speaks more ill of Dallas than his talents; the Kessler Theater may have been half full on Wednesday.)
Backed by guitarist Will Harrison, Edwards made the most of her brief time on stage, starting with the chiming, poignant “Options Open” and tackling all of her albums to date.
Edwards credits Arlington native Maren Morris in part for reconnecting her with the joy of writing and acting. Morris contacted Edwards while the premiere was preparing her second album, Daughter.
“Being in Nashville, I realized I was in my natural habitat,” Edwards said Wednesday.
As Edwards, her cut-glass viola as enduring and dynamic as ever, battled Harrison on Wednesday, it was apparent she was losing herself in climactic call-and-response (the peak of “Sure as Shit” was a moment loud, just like the final stomp of “Back to Me”) and that she regained some of the joy she had once lost.
His anecdotes burst with life. An extended interlude about her “stoned dog” and post-op misadventures was the perfect setup for the heartbreaking “Dogs and Alcohol,” while her tender reminiscing about her ex-husband and retaining physical memories, ahead of “Sure as Shit” , further anchored an already absorbing melody.
Just a dozen songs later, Edwards and Harrison saluted — a well-deserved standing ovation put a big smile on Edwards’ face — and ducked offstage, as the house lights dimmed. lit. It was the kind of performance where it felt like five minutes had passed, despite the amount of feeling, passion and skill deployed.
But it wasn’t hard to see why Edwards only gave what she thought she could. No artist should have to feel compelled to metaphorically open their veins night after night if it comes at enormous personal and psychological cost. There is value in vulnerability, yes, but also power in restraint.
Kathleen Edwards has come back to what she’s been missing, and if closeness to her undeniable talents is on her terms, then so be it.
John Paul White – most remembered from his time in The Civil Wars – was a stellar opening act, performing solo for an hour and drawing freely from his own and others’ work. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a deadpan sense of humor (“I’m glad to see someone other than my family,” he cracked. “It’s okay – they are not there, I can tell.”) And a plaintive, delicate and gentle tenor, White held the audience in the palm of his hand throughout his time on stage.
Between White and Edwards, Wednesday was a reminder of how the Kessler Theatre, more than any other venue in the city, is built for nights — and performers — like this. White’s ease with covers was impressive: he added a bit of The Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey” at the end of “The Long Way Home”, delivered Rufus Wainwright’s “Vibrate” with aplomb (“The Only Person more dramatic than me,” White joked at his conclusion), and capped off his set with Electric Light Orchestra’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head.”
In between, his chiaroscuro country and folk songs — “The Hurting Kind,” “The Once and Future Queen,” and, of course, “Barton Hollow” — lingered in the air, deriving immense pleasure from the pain and confusion. It was the sound of a man, as White said, finding solace in his art: “I don’t know what I would do if it wasn’t for the music. I’m the type of guy who locks things up.