Shannon McNally – Live at Smith’s Olde Bar

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Maybe Atlanta doesn’t like Shannon McNally, or maybe Shannon McNally doesn’t like Atlanta.  But it’s not working out so well.

The first time I saw her was at Summerfest, an annual crafts and music festival featuring a number of bands throughout the day.  A year or so after the release of her critically acclaimed CD, Geronimo, she somehow got saddled with starting the show in the midday Atlanta heat.  No one really knew who she was, and of the 50 or so there, most were at the rear hugging shade under the trees.  I didn’t know who she was, but she sang her heart out and tried to work some enthusiasm into a crowd not long past their morning Starbucks.  She outclassed her band, but I gambled $15, bought an autographed CD and became a fan that day.

A couple years later, she revisited Atlanta at Center Stage supporting Marc Broussard.  His band was a significant step up, but the challenge of playing to a crowd that was ready to dance and acoustics that muddled her vocals were barriers too great to win an audience over, despite an inspired effort on her part.  McNally has a voice that can lend itself to blues or country, but the nuances in her pronunciations are what makes her special, which potentially makes any live setting difficult.

McNally plays in Atlanta frequently, and Friday, she was back, this time at the venerable Smith’s Olde Bar but sandwiched between two other artists... which translates to a disappointingly limited hour and 10 minutes of performance.

The opening act, Julie Gribble, took the stage with personality to spare.  Judging by the snapshots taken, she seemed a candidate for “the Next Big Thing.”  Many in the (small) crowd came to see her, and while her songs didn’t clearly belong in any mainstream category (thus dropped into alt-country or Americana classifications), she clearly had an effusive, if not flighty, stage presence.  Her songs are fairly compact narrative or romantic tales, and her voice has some likeness to Natalie Merchant.  Based on her expansive chat between songs, she possibly assumed the audience was solely hers, a notion reinforced in that she never bothered to introduce herself. 

Julie Gribble

After a brisk change of drums and guitars, McNally tuned her guitar behind the curtain then leapt into her opening number, “This Ain’t My Home.” (I think). What followed was a very quick set primarily covering songs from her latest CD, Coldwater.  As concerts go, this is expected, except…

  • Coldwater is no Geronimo, from which there were no songs.  
  • Her backing band’s name, Hot Sauce, is catchy but not descriptive.  With a stoic lead guitarist that doesn’t travel from the tried and true, they sound more of affordable, competent accompaniment.  Granted, “Mayonnaise” as a band name probably wouldn’t inspire ticket purchases.
  • A failure to connect with what politely should be called an intimate audience.  Why not chat at least a little? There was no indication that McNally wanted to be there, and she did nothing outside of the music to win any fans. Live music at its best requires both a give and take between performer and audience, so it was disappointing to see her go through the motions.
  • Had someone not shouted “One more!” after she abruptly concluded the set with a “Thanks Atlanta,” I doubt there would have been an encore (which was an energetic delivery of Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, Ornery, and Mean”).

Shannon McNally & Hot Sauce

It wasn’t bad, though.  I was just hoping for much more.  McNally’s vocals were typically strong, and it’s not as if her seeming disinterest caused her to back off from her performance.  She’s also an increasingly confident guitarist, tackling solos and, at times, seeking her inner Neil Young (electric Neil, not acoustic…).

Shannon McNally

McNally seems to be at a crossroads in her music career.  Her tour dates are frequent, but her creative output (or Atlanta audience size) isn’t trending up.  But maybe it was just a bad day.  She was apparently in a much better mood just three days prior as evidenced by the videos below.  The latter clearly shows that her talent doesn’t demand a band to shine.

And a great acoustic song from Geronimo:

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