Mary Chapin Carpenter's performance at Wolf Trap Friday night amounted to more than just her annual homecoming. Like her new album, "Party Doll," it was also a celebration of a remarkable decade-long recording career during which she's managed to appeal to fans of country, pop and folk music on her own terms.
Her voice strong and luminous, Carpenter opened with a series of tunes that demonstrated her strengths as songwriter and interpreter, addressing themes of perseverance ("The Hard Way"), desire (Lucinda Williams's "Passionate Kisses") and independence ("I Take My Chances"). The more reflective and insightful songs were often balanced by the catchy refrains ("Shut Up and Kiss Me," "I Feel Lucky") and rhythmically infectious romps ("Down at the Twist and Shout") that have helped broaden her audience and enliven her concerts over the years.
While her current band is leaner than previous editions, it still packs plenty of punch, thanks to guitarist Duke Levine, keyboardist Jon Carroll, bassist and guitarist John Jennings and drummer Dave Mattacks. Levine was especially effective, lacing the arrangements with colorful fills and fluid solos. Several of the evening's highlights, though, were sparsely arranged and emotionally subdued, particularly Carpenter's moving homage to a lost and nearly forgotten soul, "John Doe No. 24."
"Almost Home," her current single, and the traditional ballad "10,000 Miles" punctuated Carpenter's hit list, and Mick Jagger's "Party Doll," a tune she used to perform at the Birchmere, received a soulful reprise. Yet the biggest surprise came during the encores when she briefly turned cabaret chanteuse and poked fun at Mariah Carey, Madonna, Celine Dion and Shania Twain. She capped this amusing bit with the universal diva refrain: "O, come let you adore me."
Opening the show--and adding a Celtic burst of energy to the encores--was the Irish American ensemble Solas. The quintet opened the evening with a racing set of reels, fueled largely by Winifred Horan's fiddle and guitarist John Doyle's chord-driven thrust. Later, the band featured its fine new vocalist, Sheila O'Leary, on a few tunes, including a rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" that revealed the strong ties that bind American and Irish folk traditions.