Shannon McNally went to her place last night at Chickie Wah Wah.
At Shannon McNally's musical core is mystery. Part of that mystery is conceptual as her writing reflects a hybrid spiritual center that taps into Native American beliefs with a hippie component and feet in the urban and rural worlds. That doesn't mean her lyrics are impenetrable or psychobabble - far from it. They're direct and familiar as she works with rock 'n' roll tropes and language, or, as in the case of "Thunderhead," they're startlingly concrete as she talks about giving birth to her daughter. But, as her solo show last night at Chickie Wah Wah demonstrated, her lines draw connections between the natural world, the spirit world, the physical world and the rock 'n' roll world in ways you don't see coming.
Performing last night as a solo artist drew attention to her voice, which only becomes a more fascinating instrument with time. It's mannered, drawling vowels in ways that don't show up when she speaks, but that gives her a southern exotic dimension. When she sings, those flattened vowels and her casual treatment of final syllables and consonants often leave her songs to stand as vocal performances more than expressions of ideas, but it's more than that. When McNally sings, the act of singing is the message as much any idea embedded in the lyric. It's a ritual, a communication with higher powers, and the song is an incantation framed by country, the blues and rock 'n' roll.
That makes her a little hard to know onstage, even when she is as chatty as she was Wednesday. Between songs, she spoke with equal casualness of her drive, feeling the spirits in Oklahoma the way she felt them in New Orleans, and her musician friend Duff Dorrough, who's waiting for a new liver. It's all of a piece, but they're pieces that don't fit togethe easily, furthering the enignma.
There were moments last night when I heard Patti Smith in her art, partially in the shared incantory nature of their singing, but also in the way rock 'n' roll lies at the heart of their work. It's not just the musical framework for McNally; it's her language, and it affects the way she thinks thoughts. When she calls a song, "If It Were Mine to Keep," she's not tipping her hat to Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep it With Mine." She's simply using words and phrases that are central to her worldview. Her notion of the spirit world may draw on Native American concepts, but you watch her perform and know that she envisions herself in communication with the musicians who have gone before.