“It was a long time before I could do this song without crying,” said Lucy Kaplansky before performing “This Is Home” — a love song about her husband and daughter — at The Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, Dec. 3. You could imagine her saying this about many of the songs performed in the course of the night.
There was “Old Friends,” for instance (not the Simon & Garfunkel song), inspired by her decades-long friendship with her former singing partner Shawn Colvin. “I remember us sitting on the floor singing every song we knew/Richard and Linda Thompson, Gram and Emmylou,” she sang, as if if lost in a reverie.
And there was “Last Days of Summer,” about her daughter Molly’s recent departure from home, to attend college, featuring lines such as “After 18 years, how can it be just one week more/Till we carry those boxes to her new room on the seventh floor.”
Kaplansky, a native of Chicago who has lived in New York since the ’80s, sang songs written in the aftermath of 9/11 (“Brooklyn Train,” “Land of the Living”) as well as “Mary’s Window,” which starts as a anguished look at pandemic-era isolation as well as the “sickness and hatred and bigotry” of pandemic-era politics but turns into a hopeful anthem. In “Song of the Exiled,” she found poetry in the lives of New York taxi drivers — immigrants from other country who have found hope in the United States.
Kaplansky — who sings with a hint of a twang, and has a knack for making her self-revealing lyrics sound conversational — backed herself on guitar, piano and mandolin during this solo show. She mentioned that she had been performed at the Outpost many times before, and had made her first public announcement that she was going to be a mother at a 2003 Outpost appearance. (Molly came to this Outpost show, Kaplansky said, serving as her road manager, but skipped the show itself in order to do homework backstage).
For much of the show, Kaplansky relied on requests from the audience, giving the evening a casual, intimate vibe. She also joked about the poor condition of the jacket she was wearing (“I asked Molly, ‘Is this OK?’ … she said, ‘It’s OK for tonight’ “) and in many other ways, too, gave the impression that she was just hanging out with friends, not performing for a crowd.
Kaplansky has self-released her last two albums — 2018’s Everyday Street and this year’s Last Days of Summer — as well as her 2011 Kaplansky Sings Kaplansky EP, featuring songs written by her late father, mathematician Irving Kaplansky (also an accomplished musician). She has gone further than most indie musicians, though, selling the CDs only through her website, lucykaplansky.com, and at shows, and not making them available through streaming services since she believes streaming services do not pay artists fairly.
Indeed, one of the angriest songs she performed at the Outpost, “End of the Day,” was directed at an unnamed musician who has sold out. She also seethed about a betrayal in “Turn the Lights Back On.” But her tone was, mostly, warm and nurturing. “I just want you to know that I’m fine now,” she reassured her fans after singing about her parental heartbreak in “Last Days of Summer.”
She performed one song from that Kaplansky Sings Kaplansky album: “A Song About Pi,” in which Irving Kaplansky cleverly translated the first 14 digits of the pi sequence (3.1415926535897) into a melody, as if the numbers represented notes on a scale, and also wrote lyrics such as “there was elation/Throughout the whole Greek nation/When Archimedes did his mighty computation.”
The show’s other covers — and there were a lot of them — were of a less intellectual nature. Kaplansky sang the Johnny Cash hit “Ring of Fire” (written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore) and as well as the standard “White Christmas,” Nanci Griffith’s “I Wish It Would Rain,” Eliza Gilkyson’s “Sanctuary,” Loudon Wainwright III’s “The Swimming Song,” Dave Carter’s “Cowboy Singer” and Julie Miller’s “By Way of Sorrow.” And she closed her set (before encoring with “By Way of Sorrow”) with a hypnotic version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” that was unlike any I’ve ever heard before (and I’ve heard a lot), backing herself with an insistent strummed-guitar pulse.
And then “By Way of Sorrow” — an audience request, so not a pre-planned show-closer — summed up this introspective, sometimes dark but ultimately life-affirming show perfectly, via Miller’s assurance that “You have come by way of sorrow, you have come by way of tears/But you’ll reach your destiny, come to find you all these years.”
Here is the show’s setlist:
“Last Days of Summer”
“End of the Day”
“Ring of Fire”
“Ten Year Night”
“Turn the Lights Back On”
“Land of the Living”
“Don’t Mind Me”
“The Swimming Song”
“This Is Home”
“Song of the Exiled”
“A Song About Pi”
“I Wish It Would Rain”
“By Way of Sorrow”
Here are a couple of videos from the show:
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