Although Madeleine Peyroux has had a hand in writing a song or three on each of her albums, she had been more likely to defer to classics from Bessie Smith and Edith Piaf (on 1996's excellent
), Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan (on 2004's
), or Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell (on 2006's
Half the Perfect World
). But on this year's
, Peyroux showcased her own songwriting, mostly in collaboration with others.
Her Friday performance at the Keswick Theatre followed suit, assiduously avoiding songs she didn't write, with a few exceptions. Dressed in a long, loose brown jacket and a bowler for a prop, Peyroux and her tenor guitar fronted a four-piece band before a two-thirds-full house of patrons mostly older than her 35 years. The 75-minute show was classy, sultry, and tame.
Peyroux's songs held up well, with flashes of wit, humor, and detail adding slight friction to the intimate, languorous surface, as on "Bare Bones," a drinking song (as she called it) that blended references to her father with allusions to Hamlet. She is most comfortable singing behind the beat, as she did on "River of Tears," another song which, like much of her style, owed a lot to Billie Holiday and a bit less to Nina Simone.
She played with tempo, rushing some phrases, holding back and slurring others, as on opener "Don't Wait Too Long." The pace picked up for the amusing "You Can't Do Me" and for "I'm All Right," a breakup song as jaunty as her bowler. But the preponderance of midtempo shuffles and ballads flowed with uniform and artful restraint. The set detoured for an accordion and mandolin-based interlude that alluded to Peyroux's busking days in Paris, and most songs made room for solos - keyboardist Gary Versace was particularly impressive. But it was not until the encore of "I Hear Music," a standard by Frank Loesser, that Peyroux sang with genuinely loose abandon.
In contrast to Peyroux's self-contained poise, opener Kelly Joe Phelps tore into his acoustic guitar, finger-picking vigorously in a style influenced by Mississippi Fred McDowell. His songs often meander, but his playing was dramatic.