Maria McKee's career path has been twisted, beginning in the 1980s when she was lead singer of the promising Los Angeles-based alternative country band Lone Justice. (Its major hit, such as it was, was "Ways to Be Wicked.") Record-label difficulties resulted in a hiatus in Ireland, where McKee refined her abilities. A return to Los Angeles in the 1990s found her stronger than ever, recording a song for the hit "Pulp Fiction" soundtrack -- "If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)" -- and writing tunes covered by the Dixie Chicks.
Tuesday night at Iota, McKee demonstrated once again the vocal power and intensely personal songwriting that keeps her fans enthralled. Backed by a three-piece rock unit, McKee played acoustic guitar and some electric piano on "Peddlin' Dreams," "Am I the Only One (Who's Ever Felt This Way)," "The Horse Life" and others, using her octave-climbing voice to call attention to the urgency of the lyrics.
A highlight was a touching version -- could there be another kind? -- of Neil Young's "Barstool Blues," performed alone at the piano the way it was meant to be. But McKee was just as riveting with the band kicking into "Shelter," a Lone Justice number that smoothly glided into a memorable crescendo.
As the evening's opener, the singer-songwriter Rose was a fine choice as she played a set of country-tinged folk that showcased her own distinctive vocal abilities. She may want to reconsider opening a show with a downbeat tune called "Another Sad Song." It took a few more numbers to warm up the house, but she eventually did.
-- Buzz McClain