Erin McKeown Plugs in for Acoustic Cafe

Ironically, there won’t be an acoustic guitar at tonight’s Acoustic Cafe Evening Tour. Carrie Rodriguez will sport an electric mandolin, a violin, and perhaps even whip out her fiddle to showcase her tremendous fiddling skills. Erin McKeown will play an electric guitar. While the show is too structured to be a jam session, it will include the two women interacting with each other and improvising. They’ll each have a few solos, then play together.

Erin McKeown and Acoustic Cafe Tour with Carrie Rodriguez at Ogden Museum in New Orleans.

Erin McKeown. Photo by Nancy Palmieri.

This is the second year the pair have toured with Acoustic Cafe. Last year, they traveled through the Upper Midwest. They’re looking forward to this year’s Southern experience, and McKeown, who has never visited the Ogden Museum, is excited that the museum is hosting the show. Acoustic Cafe, a syndicated radio show, sponsors the tour. McKeown has done a session with them for most of her records. Rodriguez and McKeown visit radio shows affiliated with Acoustic Cafe throughout the day, then play their own shows at night.

When speaking about her tour partner, McKeown’s voice softens. “She’s just so good on her instrument,” McKeown says. “There are musicians who are writers but not players. I take a lot of time to practice my playing so I can be as expressive with that as I am with my writing. Carrie is the same way. When we get together, we get to surprise each other and react and interact.”

McKeown, a Brown University graduate, is well-spoken. She pauses and thinks carefully. When asked about a recent blog post she wrote about New Orleans’ young squatter problem, she says, “I don’t have a New Orleans understanding of a lot of communities. I only have my observations. Those observations are filtered through the lens of my own experience.” The post is considerably more strongly-worded than the quiet, thoughtful woman on the phone.

McKeown’s passion for New Orleans issues goes beyond her blog posts. Her relationship with the city is multi-faceted. She is an activist who is an Air Traffic Control alumna, local musicians have inspired her own musical taste and work, and she frequently visits friends here and continues to make it a vacation destination.

“I was immediately influenced by New Orleans before I ever went there,” McKeown says, reflecting on her attraction to jazz, blues and American roots. She views New Orleans as the grand intersection of jazz, blues and American roots, which are the genres most to her personal taste. She also acknowledges the importance of bounce to the hip-hop world.

At a deeper musical level, McKeown says, “Music is such a large part of people’s lives from a young age [in New Orleans]. That kind of relationship with your instrument is something I admire and want to cultivate for myself as well.”

Like all Air Traffic Control alumni, McKeown says that the musicians’ retreat was life-altering. The organization, which brings musicians together on a retreat to learn about and discuss activism, showed McKeown an extreme example of the effect that systemic poverty, environmental disaster and other damaging long-term issues can have on a population.

“It wasn’t about being a disaster tourist. It transformed the way I thought about the liveability factor,” she says. “It was like check this out and talk to each other about it. What are you going to do?”

ATC retreats culminate with each attendee playing with a New Orleans house band, which was Bonerama on McKeown’s trip. She recorded “Blackbirds,” one of the stand-outs on ATC’s Dear New Orleans album, released last August to commemorate Katrina’s fifth anniversary. McKeown loved the way she and Bonerama played together and has jammed with them since her ATC experience. McKeown describes playing with Bonerama as a catharsis, a word she frequently applies to music.

“This is ironic to say as a singer-songwriter, but what I find therapeutic about music is its inarticulateness, its lack of symbolic language,” she says. She recently released what she calls her most intimate album, Hundreds of Lions. “There are some things you can say with music that you can’t say any other way.”

The show is tonight, February 18, at 8 p.m. in the Patrick F. Taylor Library at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $50 for VIP, which includes preferred seating and a meet and greet/reception with the musicians after the performance. Advance tickets are available until 5 p.m.