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Maria McKee

For the discerning listener, live albums generally are chancy propositions. They might consist simply of an assortment of concert performances identical (or inferior) to the versions of songs with which we're already familiar from studio recordings. Or they might offer us the chance to hear an artist as she redefines her music and songs in front of a crowd of other humans.

So it's fortunate for us that the latest CD by country-rock-folk singer-songwriter Maria McKee, who boasts one of the most amazing and soulful voices in popular music, falls into the latter category. Recorded during her acoustic tour last year, these 14 tunes feature only McKee on guitar and piano, with harmony vocals by her friend Susan Otten. McKee also indulges in a little between-song patter, but it's not excessive.

The set touches down on tunes from throughout McKee's career, including several songs by her '80s band, Lone Justice. It's a shame, though, that she chose not to do "Ways to Be Wicked"; it could probably be argued that it wasn't appropriate for the stripped-down setting, but that doesn't stop her from including the new-wavey "Belfry."

Highlights from her solo work include two songs from her 2005 Peddlin' Dreams album. She covers Richard Thompson's wistful "Has He Got a Friend for Me" and plays a few songs by her late brother, Bryan MacLean, including "Orange Skies," originally recorded during the 1960s with his band Love.

It's impossible to forget McKee's impassioned delivery here of Lone Justice's almost-hit "Shelter," not to mention her truly sublime interpretation of Bruce Springsteen's "Backstreets," which closes the disc.

More by Gene Armstrong

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