Vulnerability has its limits. Musicians, particularly those adept at excavating the stories of their own lives, can tire of chipping off another infinitesimal piece of themselves and sharing it, with open hands and hearts, with an audience that may or may not accept it. In sparing nothing, whether it’s bliss or agony, some of the world’s more artistically inclined souls can sacrifice almost everything.
All of that, admittedly, is reading a bit into the words uttered by Kathleen Edwards as she stood on a Dallas stage for the first time in 11 years Wednesday night, in between the third and fourth songs of her 70-minute set at the Kessler Theater. (The performance was originally scheduled to take place in late May but was postponed because of a COVID-19 diagnosis within the touring party.)
“I haven’t been to Texas in a long time because I outright quit the music business,” Edwards said. “It’s a tough life; you really live in a hard headspace.”
Edwards’ catalog, stretching back to her 2002 debut, Failer, is unflinchingly built upon calling it like she sees it — her lyrics let no one, least of all herself, off the hook. When laid against intoxicating melodies pulling from country, folk, pop and rock, those often-bracing insights, which are conveyed sparingly, can mask the steel wool sensibility.
Put another way, Edwards can break your heart even as you’re smiling.
Her return, both in the form of her 2020 LP Total Freedom and to an intimate Dallas performance space, was most welcome, a chance to bask anew in the 43-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter’s gifts. (That Edwards was greeted by such a lackluster turnout speaks more poorly of Dallas than of her talents; the Kessler Theater was maybe half full Wednesday.)
Backed by guitarist Will Harrison, Edwards made the most of her brief time onstage, leading off with the chiming, poignant “Options Open” and touching upon all her albums to date.
Edwards credits Arlington native Maren Morris, in part, with reconnecting her with the joy of writing and performing. Morris reached out to Edwards as the former was preparing her sophomore album, Girl.
“Being in Nashville, I realized I was in my natural habitat,” Edwards said Wednesday.
As Edwards, her cut-glass alto as durable and dynamic as ever, dueled Wednesday with Harrison, it was evident she lost herself in climactic call-and-responses (the apex of “Sure as Shit” was a highlight, as was the stomping finale of “Back to Me”) and that she’s recaptured a bit of whatever joy was once lost.
Her anecdotes burst with life. An extended interlude about her “stoned dog” and its post-surgery misadventures was the perfect setup for the heart-wrenching “Dogs and Alcohol,” while her tender reminiscing about her ex-husband and holding onto physical mementos, ahead of “Sure as Shit,” further grounded an already absorbing tune.
Just a dozen songs later, Edwards and Harrison were taking their bows — a well-earned standing ovation put a sizable grin on Edwards’ face — and ducking offstage, as the house lights came up. It was the sort of performance where it felt as though five minutes had elapsed, despite the amount of feeling, passion and skill put on display.
But it wasn’t hard to understand why Edwards gave only as much as she felt she could. No artist should have to feel compelled to metaphorically open their veins night after night if the act of doing so comes at an enormous personal and psychological cost. There is value in vulnerability, yes, but also power in restraint.
Kathleen Edwards has returned to that which she missed, and if proximity to her undeniable talents is on her terms, then so be it.
John Paul White — whom most remember for his time in The Civil Wars — was a stellar opening act, performing solo for an hour and pulling freely from his own works and the work of others. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a deadpan sense of humor (“I’m glad to see anyone other than my family,” he cracked. “It’s OK — they aren’t here; I can say that.”) and a plaintive tenor, delicate and sweet, White held the audience in the palm of his hand throughout his time on stage.
Between White and Edwards, Wednesday was a reminder of how the Kessler Theater, more so than any other venue in town, is built for nights — and artists — like this. White’s facility with covers was impressive: He tacked a bit of the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey” onto the end of “The Long Way Home,” rendered Rufus Wainwright’s “Vibrate” with aplomb (“The only person more dramatic than I am,” White joked at its conclusion), and capped his set with Electric Light Orchestra’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head.”
In between, his chiaroscuro country and folk songs — “The Hurting Kind,” “The Once and Future Queen” and, of course, “Barton Hollow” — lingered in the air, wringing immense pleasure out of pain and confusion. It was the sound of a man, as White put it, finding solace in his art: “I don’t know what I’d do if not for music. I’m the kind of guy who bottles things up.”