Michael Penn at the Birchmere, Alexandria, VA, Tuesday 11 October 2005
A musician's departure from a major label can be perilous. That was apparent Wednesday night at the Birchmere, as Michael Penn (who released his latest album, "Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947," independently) performed to a moderate-size crowd that seemed detached from his performance, aside from a few shouted song requests.
But that distance didn't seem to faze Penn, whose 90-minute set exuded confidence and personality. Between songs, he chatted about subjects as varied as the Web site MySpace.com (where Penn promotes his music), his obsession with the year 1947 (manifested in the current album), and the Angels Flight railway in Los Angeles (the subject of his song "Bunker Hill"). That conversational tone bled into his songs as well: The catchy but despair-filled "Walter Reed," the upbeat, bouncy "On Automatic" and the desolate "Figment" all carried an air of emotional honesty.
Rather than performing with a full band, Penn opted for a single accompanist, Peter Adams, whose piano and keyboard (and accordion on "Long Way Down") augmented Penn's guitar-strumming without overpowering it. The simplicity of those live arrangements further underscored Penn's new do-it-yourself strategy.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
.: Originally published: The Washington Post, 12 October 2005, Page C14