North Stars: Kathleen Edwards and Justin Rutledge

Neil Young would have been proud. A founding father of what would become the alt-country movement, and a Canadian, he would have approved mightily of the efforts of Kathleen Edwards and Justin Rutledge at The Paradise Friday night. These two excellent singer/songwriters brought their North of the border perspective and pluck to a Boston audience that knows the difference between craft, and well — crap. Sure, most in attendance had already made up their minds about the quality of the artists — especially Edwards — but it’s always nice to have your expectations met — not dashed. It tuned out to be a special night for all concerned.

Edwards was clearly the reason for the packed house. She’s touring in support of her third CD “Asking For Flowers” — her strongest yet. “Flowers” doesn’t rock quite as much as its predecessors “Back To Me” and “Failer” but the subject matter is deeper and more challenging. She’s now addressing racism, war, death and rebirth. We’re still getting killer tunes about drinking and low life guys, but we’re also seeing some of the depth behind the swagger.

Edwards kicked off the show with Mercury from her debut album. It’s a slow burner about drinking in a beat up car with your life’s expectations taking a steady dive. Next up was the crowd pleasing In State from “Back To Me.” For those who love the tough girl side of Edwards this is their song — she’s standing up to a louse of a lover, by threatening to rat him out to the cops — Maybe 20 Years In State Will Change Your Mind.

In fact she almost sheepishly broke into the new material, offering a good natured apology for making a “folk album.” Granted songs like Buffalo, Asking For Flowers, and Alicia Ross aren’t barroom stompers, but they still connect. She may have been a bit too faithful to the recorded versions, opening them up with the help of her crack touring band might have helped bridge the gap between the old and new a little better. These songs need to be broken in a little bit.

As the frontwoman of a fine band Edwards is a salty and unpretentious host. She loves to drop the f-bomb, challenge her bandmates to guitar duels, mug at the unexpected technical problems that crop up in every live performance. She told a great yarn about trying to track down notorious hockey enforcer Marty McSorely who she aligns herself with in the infectious new song I Make The Dough, You Get The Glory. Edwards is totally comfortable in her own skin, and it’s one of her most appealing traits. One can only hope that more people will catch on to this outstanding performer. If you’re a fan, don’t be quiet about it — spread the word.

Opener Justine Rutledge has none of the Edwards swagger — in fact he’s earnest to a fault. What he does have is a set of beautifully written songs. He delivered a sublime set that I’m sure had everyone scurrying to iTunes after the show. His CD’s are currently only available as imports which makes them pricey — the download deal is much better. Rutledge won’t blow you away with his subject matter — mostly love and loss — but he has this heart-wrenching voice that casts a powerful spell. Check out To Sober To Sleep to see what I mean. He’s one to watch.


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