For the sixth album of her career, Shelby Lynne won a Grammy for best new artist.
“I Am Shelby Lynne,” released in January 2000, showcased the voice that earned her the five previous middling country albums. But it also outshone every one of those albums and caught the ears of a wider audience, especially anyone with a deep affinity for ’60s pop-soul and -country.
Lynne is celebrating the 15th birthday of “I Am” with a deluxe edition, released late last year, and with a tour in which she performs the entire album, start to finish. Friday night, she brought that tour and a five-piece band to the Folly Theater, where about 450 people listened with rapt attention and were rewarded in spades with a stellar, heartfelt performance.
The first half of the show was dedicated to “I Can’t Imagine,” her latest studio album, released early this month. She played nine of its 10 tracks, thanking the crowd for listening patiently to new material and promising something more familiar was on the way.
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Although it’s bluesier, “Imagine” evokes the mood and style of “I Am” more than any of her other albums, so it made for a nearly seamless juxtaposition.
Her band comprised a stout and steady rhythm section (with both electric and standup bass), a keyboardist and two guitarists, one of whom played lap or pedal steel on several songs. Lynne also added rhythm guitar on many songs.
On a few of those, when all three guitars were going at once, they tended to out-muscle the rest of the band.
There were several highlights from that set, none more dramatic than “Love Is Strong” (which she co-wrote with Ron Sexsmith). The recorded version is more of a soul ballad, feverish but tempered. This evening, Lynne hurled herself into it, transforming it into a cathartic blues anthem, wailing lyrics as if expunging sorrow and pain.
At the end, she dropped the mic, which hit the floor with a thud. And for a second or two, the place was silent until the crowd erupted into a sustained ovation. It was a peak vocal moment a night when her voice was spectacularly agile and expressive.
“Following You” was another highlight. She prefaced that with a story from her childhood, about hanging out with her dad in the woods, shooting squirrels.
“Down Here” was another, a bluesy rock anthem about being gay in the South: “ I love you like I’m not thinking ‘bout it / It’s a natural thing / Even in my dark, Dixie, closet / It’s easy to see.”
She ended the first set with the title track to “I Can’t Imagine,” a plaintive ballad about exorcising the blues. Without fanfare or introduction, she went straight into “Your Lies,” the opening track to “I Am Shelby Lynne.”
She followed its script, delivering the songs in album order. The recording is lush and orchestral, so no five-piece band can re-create its supernal moods. But they rendered most of it faithfully, fussing lightly with tempos and arrangements.
“Thought It Would Be Easier” felt funkier and breezier than its recorded version. “Gotta Get Back” was bathed in steel guitar instead of strings. The swampy-bluesy “Why Can’t You Be?” was swampier and bluesier and embellished by three-part harmonies.
The strength of “I Am” is the songwriting. There are no fillers or weak moments. But its best moments come toward the end, the final three songs, and Lynne delivered them impeccably.
“Dreamsome” sounded like its title: entrancing. The wistful “Where I’m From,” homage to her native Alabama, was hypnotic and the harmonies were stunning, even through the French Cajun lyrics.
She closed with “Black Light Blue,” a dark, low-pulse rumination that sounded like one of its lyrics: “Some lonely, tragic tune.”
She and her band then gathered around a microphone and sang three of the bonus tracks from “I Am.” One of those was the slow, bluesy hymn, “Bless the Fool.” Backed by a bowed bass and an acoustic guitar, Lynne took lead vocals, and her bandmates added some background embroidery. The theater was so still you could hear her breathe.
She closed with “Miss You Sissy,” a love song to her sister, Allison Moorer, a fellow singer/songwriter. The song is bittersweet, implying the trauma the sisters endured as teenagers (their parents’ murder-suicide) but expressing their unbreakable bond: “The best part of me is missing / You can make me whole again.”
It was bare, raw and emotional, and rightfully so, because that is Shelby Lynne.
Paper Van Gogh; Back Door Front Porch; Sold the Devil (Sunshine); Son of a Gun; Down Here; Love Is Strong; Better; Following You; I Can’t Imagine; Your Lies; Leavin’; Life Is Bad; Thought It Would Be Easier; Gotta Get Back; Why Can’t You Be?; Lookin’ Up; Dreamsome; Where I’m From; Black Light Blue. Encore: She Knows Where She Goes; Bless the Fool; Miss You Sissy.