“Sometimes disasters work out for the good,” Carpenter said Monday night. Given her deep local roots, she added that it was “extraordinarily wonderful to be back on this stage.”
As if to extend the good vibes, Carpenter opened with the Cajun-flavored fave “Down At the Twist and Shout,” and followed with optimistic cuts like “A Keeper For Every Flame,” “Beautiful Racket” and “On and On It Goes.”
The sustained buoyancy was as unacceptable as it was uncharacteristic. “That was four, count ’em four, positive songs in a row,” joked Carpenter. “That’s a record, and I can’t let it continue.”
The middle of her nearly two-hour set highlighted Carpenter’s evolution from force-fitted country hitmaker to the thoughtful, searching social chronicler she eventually became.
On the languid “Grand Central Station,” Carpenter stepped into the boots of an urban working-class male. “Houston” followed a Hurricane Katrina victim into an anxious future in Texas. “Mrs. Hemingway,” a formalist piano ballad in waltz time, imagined the initial flush of Parisian romance for novelist Ernest Hemingway and his first wife.
“I can say I was lucky most days,” Carpenter sang, at once sweetly and forebodingly. Hard luck — in love and life generally — always lurks in the interstices of her songs.
To confirm as well as dispel the evening’s narrative of doom, Carpenter reeled off this year’s litany of natural disasters — “fires, floods, hurricanes, the economy” — and added this zinger: “Sarah Palin’s bus tour.”
Backed by bandmates like longtime guitarist collaborator John Jennings, pianist Jon Carroll, drummer Vince Santoro, bassist Don Dixon and guitarist Jim Henry — consummate accompanists all — Carpenter delivered early hits such as “Passionate Kisses,” “I Take My Chances” and “The Hard Way,” the latter sporting a mesmerizingly spacious alternative arrangement.