photo by Molly Misek
One of my favorite small moments of McCarthy Trenching performances happens right when the last note is fading and the applause is about to overtake it.
As the clapping picks up, Dan McCarthy will almost invariably, enthusiastically and earnestly cry “thanks” as though he were surprised that an audience would emote for his piano playing, his guitar fingerpicking and his acutely observational songwriting.
But what that joyful custom beautifully belies is that the applause these days for McCarthy Trenching is for an increasingly sophisticated performer. On his 2012 album Plays the Piano, which always makes me feel like I’m listening from somewhere underneath the grand piano lid, there’s an old-timey parade that never gives over to era fixation. It’s always in service to the lyricism of cleverness and critiques of human stories that have lived on McCarthy Trenching albums since his self-titled debut in 2007.
One such example from the song “Ponderosa Village,” which appears to be about a trailer park near Fort Calhoun, Neb., always catches my ears. Dan sings: “To call it a trailer is such a misnomer, you can’t hitch it up, and it ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
I must have listened to the song in non-critical context a dozen times, the kind of sway-the-shoulders piano that makes McCarthy’s standing gigs on Wednesdays at Pageturners Lounge seem very fitting. But pan in closer, and it’s the compositional evolution of folk music that’s too smart to accept all the backward looks and instead looks around at the world sometimes with raise eyebrows. There’s more than just 88 keys to a Randy Newman comparison here.
All this coalesces to explain McCarthy’s recent composing work with bands like Electric Chamber Music, which traveled to Boston in October to live score a Mac Wellman play.
On February 20 at Film Streams as part of that nonprofit theater’s Hitchcock 9 series, McCarthy will live score the director’s 1929 film The Farmer’s Wife. It’s not the first time McCarthy has undertaken a live film scoring and not even in the first time at this venue. In 2012, McCarthy performed during a screening of Sherlock Jr. starring Buster Keaton. Like Sherlock Jr., it’s a silent film and also a 1920s comedy. On the 20th, McCarthy will be joined by James Maakestad of his band and also of Gus & Call.
But on Thursday, with his guitar and his voice, Dan McCarthy joined us in the KZUM studios. Ladies and gentleman, here is McCarthy Trenching.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer hosts Hear Nebraska FM with Jacob Zlomke. On the show next, we’ll be asking you do please support KZUM during their birthday funddrive. We clearly couldn’t do this without them. Reach Chance at email@example.com.