If your tastes run to finely crafted songwriting, then the standout event between Christmas and New Year’s is when Melissa Ferrick and Marshall Crenshaw roll into Club Passim on separate nights.
By Brett Milano
Never mind the Bosstones: If your tastes run to finely crafted songwriting rather than punk-ska bluster, then the real event between Christmas and New Year’s is the two shows that seem to happen every year at Club Passim, when Melissa Ferrick and Marshall Crenshaw roll into town on separate nights. Both have been making a tradition of these shows—Ferrick for the past decade, Crenshaw for four years now—and this year Ferrick played two nights, Friday and Saturday; Crenshaw did two shows on Sunday. And both evinced the give-and-take that comes from beloved cult artists and their more devoted fans.
Thanks to one of those fans, Crenshaw’s early show was something of a dream set. A few songs in, someone asked permission to shout a request, Crenshaw said sure, and he asked for “A Hundred Dollars”—a deep cut from 1987’s Mary Jean & 9 Others. Crenshaw didn’t play the song because he couldn’t remember it; the same fan crapped out with two further requests. (Crenshaw clearly has a dim memory of his own catalogue). But he did take that as a cue to shake up his usual setlist, playing all the seldom-played tunes he could recall. Rarest of the lot was “What Time Is It?’, the sweet Jive Five doo-wop nugget that Crenshaw covered on his second album (1983’s Field Day)—and he said, never played live before Sunday. He dug up a few of his own lesser-known songs as well: 1993’s hipster-jazz “Fantastic Planet of Love” and “What Do You Dream Of?”, which led off the overlooked 1996 album Miracle of Science. The latter tune couples the giddy feel of a teenage pop song with a decidedly adult relationship lyric; of all the should’ve-been hits in Crenshaw’s catalogue it’s one of the should’ve-beenest. (His actual hits, “Someday, Someway” and “Whenever You’re On My Mind” were in the set as well).
To a large extent Crenshaw will always be a rocker; Sunday’s set included the Buddy Holly song “Crying. Waiting, Hoping,” which I’ve never seen him skip. But the newer material he played, from 2009’s Jaggedland and an upcoming followup, suggested he’s moving on. The Jaggedlland songs were an edgy mix of downbeat lyrics, with questions of mortality and regret coming up, and reassuring melody. The songs he introduced on Sunday, lately written with New York songwriter Dan Bern, were denser lyrically and less obvious with the pop hooks, but still quite grabbing in a Dylanesque way: A tune called “Red Wine,” about his love/hate relationship with it, was the keeper; and that’ll be one worth shouting requests for next year.
Melissa Ferrick has been growing up in public for a couple of decades now. All the milestones in her life—coming out as gay, getting sober, leaving the major-label world and going indie, starting a professorship at Berklee, getting in and out of relationships—have been shared with her audience; she’s never one to worry about too much information. Her first show on Boxing Day—played solo acoustic after a couple years with a band—introduced a stack of new songs, and it was clear that the relationship she’s currently in is either going to last forever or crash and burn immediately, depending on the song. Her romantically-slanted tunes can feel like unvarnished diary entries, but don’t be fooled: she’s got an artful way of laying out the messiness in love affairs (“Wreck Me,” which led off her last album, the truth is, makes a one-night stand sound scary but irresistible), and her melodies have gotten more sophisticated over the years. Her acoustic guitar work, percussive and Townshend-esque, was impressive from the get-go.
Ferrick is always at her loosest at Passim; on Friday she posed for Facebook photos from the stage, took a few requests, even flirted with a lady who’d gotten up to use the bathroom. And she played her longest and most notorious song, “Drive,” which hasn’t been done in a few years. The song’s quite explicitly about physical love, and at times she’s sung it sexily enough to elicit deep groans from some of the fans. Not this time, however: on this night Ferrick worked it for humor, getting into all the neurotic negotiating about who should move exactly which way at which time. That’s as revealing as any songwriter is likely to get.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.