Family Affair

Their finest hour: Kate and Anna McGarrigle

Except as something to flee and then wistfully remember, the home has seldom served as material for great pop music. Boy rockers, when they aren't busy fronting existential nomad, don't often refer to the family lest they risk seeming less available for the imaginations of their admirers (or imagined admirers, at least). The little gurls don't do it either, except to invoke the "daddy" they need you to be--or pretend they need.

Over in the realm of folk, sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle have broken this songwriters' silence. Since they hit (in absentia) through Linda Ronstadt's cover of their 1976 ballad "Heart Like a Wheel," Kate and Anna have playfully turned their parlor on the outskirts of Montreal into a stage where the pull of family, the trials of commitment, and the sexy, alluring magic of domestic bliss are rendered as powerful drama. And now, joined by Kate's ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III, they're bringing their family affair on tour, with a stop in the Twin Cities on Sunday night.

Musically, the McGarrigles' intimate focus relocates folk's sacred space from the front porch to the family piano--a sweeping shift that allows for the incorporation of English music hall, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Stephen Foster. The McGarrigle sisters encountered all this music while very young, under the diligent tutelage of their father, the host of a weekly radio variety show on the CBC. Lyrically, this domestic focus renovates standard sentiments about hearth and home, as Kate and Anna smirk sidelong (like forebear Jane Austen) at complacency and empty ritual. It's as if they are rewriting the parlor novels of the Eighteenth Century for post-'60s divorcées.

The first two Kate and Anna McGarrigle albums--1976's self-titled debut and 1977's career-best Dancer with Bruised Knees--were folk records by women searching for community in a placid post-folkie scene. They celebrated the liberating confusion of twentysomething aimlessness, sensual gratification, sex, and belly laughs. Kate's "Kiss and Say Goodbye" and her version of Loudon's up-the-country anthem "Swimming Song" may have been paeans to postadolescent freedom. But her winsome ode to roaming through New York, "Talk to Me of Mendocino" and her lovely ode to leaving same, "Tell My Sister," burst the bubble of youthful selfishness by suggesting that the concept of groundless freedom was a hippie sham.

So almost as an act of conscience, Dancer returned from the big city to the dooryard. It dissected the psychology of sparing the rod (Kate's "First Born"), the sacrifices of growing up in a showbiz family ("No Biscuit Blues"), estrangement ("Kitty Come Home"), and friendship ("Come a Long Way"). Produced by '70s folk impresario Joe Boyd (Richard and Linda Thompson, Nick Drake, and R.E.M.), the album has a warm, often pop production. Yet, with the sisters' ability to pull from jazz, blues, old pop and English ballads, the arrangements are actually deceptively complex and the songcraft meticulous. Nonetheless, Anna's twee-toned soprano and Kate's handsome, sensible drawl never quite captured the waning folk market. The healthy number of songs sung in French couldn't have helped. Both records remain classics, though--probably two of the wisest albums ever recorded by people so young, or, against their better judgment, idealistic.

The most surprising thing about last year's wonderful release The McGarrigle Hour (Rykodisc) is not that this spirit has proved resistant to cynicism or sentimentality, but that it has grown wider and deeper. Don't get me wrong: The motley cast on the album's inner sleeve cover--ex-hippies, graying folkies, estranged family, and a black-sheep son--look as much like the Loud family as they do the Von Trapp Family Singers. Kate and Loudon are divorced, and he has long made his living off being bitter about this, and everything else. Rufus is an operatically overwrought gay troubadour. This did not stop the McGarrigle sisters from recruiting everyone to gather around the piano for an imagined radio show--a Thanksgiving special taped on location in the sisters' mythical Montreal living room. There's Loudon, Rufus, Kate and Loudon's folkie daughter Martha, sister Jane McGarrigle, Anna's husband Dane Lanken, and a host of pals including Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and the album's secret weapon, guitarist-vocalist Chaim Tannenbaum.

Despite the seemingly easy atmosphere, this is no one-off hoedown. All the artists involved treat their performances with a studied passion matched by a loving professionalism. It's the last rehearsal before airing, and everyone is dead set on nailing the parts. And while this family reunion was not destined to end in drunken epithets, the themes of lost love and injured youth that permeate the choice of standards ("Young Love," "What'll I Do?") and originals ("Schooldays," "Heartburn") complicate the record's Thanksgiving vibe. Aided by decades of distance, Kate, Anna, and Loudon deliver a sweetly triumphant reading of 1970's "Schooldays," which the sisters describe in their liner notes as Loudon's "wry comment on the hubris of adolescence." Here, it plays as a bitter reminiscence about the risks of losing one's sense of immaturity. And listening to Kate, Martha, and Rufus's longing go at "Talk to Me of Mendocino" feels like eavesdropping on a family history lesson.

Yet the radio-show conceit also enables its players to break character. Emmylou Harris steps out in French on the Cajun "La Porte en Arrière." Rufus camps up old pop on the cheesy and coy "Heartburn." The sisters indulge themselves with classics (from "Alice Blue Gown" to "Goodnight Sweetheart") that they might have otherwise eschewed as part of their career-long quest to move beyond the confines of mere craft.

But for all the record's folk star-power, its hero is the sisters' childhood "musical playmate," philosophy professor and sideman Tannenbaum. His gorgeous guitar on "Schooldays" sheds sunlight on Loudon's scenes of rowing on the Delaware lake of his patrician youth. And Tannenbaum's handsome reading of the Bahamian spiritual "Dig My Grave" takes this record's folkie lineage back to the field recordings that helped create it. Finally, his one original, "Time on My Hands," is a Tin Pan Alley-style number that goes over on the performer's pure pride in delivery. As an individual performance, it is the record's most innocent, heartening moment. And in the spirit of the album's communal ethos, it is organic, loving, folk culture at its most believable.


The McGarrigles and Loudon Wainwright III play 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 18 at the Fitzgerald Theatre; (651) 290-1221 or (612) 989-5151.

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