The Enduring Cool

Shawn Colvin and her ironic, darkness-embracing songs are headed to City Limits

Grammy winner Shawn Colvin is the rare performer who enjoys continuing widespread popularity from fans and critics alike. At her best, she is among the finest of the post-Joni Mitchell generation of singer/songwriters that includes Dar Williams, Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Rosanne Cash. At her worst--when she doesn't live up to her potential--she's aggravating, like the really smart girl who drops out of school for obscure reasons even she can't articulate.

Initially confessional, and at times painfully personal in her songwriting, recent years have seen Colvin--whose publicists declined to make her available for an interview--expanding her songwriting skills with artfully fictional narratives. Her willingness to embrace darkness in her songs is part of her distinctive style, as are her jaunty melodies and frequent sense of irony. At their best, her songs are enduring gems of insight that invite you to hum along.

In addition to her poetic voice, Colvin's physical voice is instantly recognizable--a warm, smart woman-child tone, full of control--and often overshadows her instrumental ability. Serving her apprenticeship in the highly competitive mid-'80s New York folk scene, she came up alongside people like John Gorka, Patty Larkin and Lucy Kaplansky, whom she mentored. In those folk clubs, Colvin developed solid guitar skills that are sometimes obscured on her recordings, but serve her well as a solo performer.

Shawn Colvin's recording career has not been prolific. She's garnered Grammy awards and nominations based on quality, not quantity. Sure, she's released seven albums, starting with her stunning 1989 debut, Steady On, which earned Colvin her first Grammy (in the category Best Contemporary Folk Recording), but closer examination reveals that a live album recorded a year earlier, Live '88 (which wasn't officially released until 1995), included most of the songs that eventually graced Steady On.

Steady On was followed by Fat City in 1993, earning her two more Grammy nominations. But 1994's Cover Girl was just that, Colvin covering songs that ranged from the Police's "Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic" to Tom Waits' tender "The Heart of Saturday Night"; the Talking Heads' groove-a-thon "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" to Dylan's heartbreaking "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." Between her current high water mark, 1996's A Few Small Repairs (including the Grammy Song of the Year, "Sunny Came Home") and her most recent album, 2001's Whole New You, there was only the 1998 Holiday Songs and Lullabies. That quirky Christmas collection was reportedly inspired by her impending motherhood--and perhaps some contractual obligations.

At the current pace, we might expect another album in a year or two. In the meantime, now in the midst of a summer-long tour, her performance will likely give interesting previews of her next recording, as well as reviving many fan favorites. Tucson favorite Ana Egge, formerly of Silver City, N.M., opens the show.

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