Carpenter Tickles Crowd at Huge Atlanta Picnic

Yes, you could bring a cooler to the Mary Chapin Carpenter concert in Atlanta on Saturday night (Aug. 2). How else would you get in the focaccia bread and the pint of blackberries?

Carpenter appeared at the Chastain Park Amphitheatre, nestled among the fine homes and sprawling trees near the ritzy Buckhead neighboorhood. Folks brought in picnic baskets with floral centerpieces and cubes of apples, bowls of roasted shrimp and bags of macadamia nuts. A chorus of “Happy Birthday” could be heard, complete with a big-enough-to-share white cake and candles.

But alas, this was more than just an evening soiree, as Carpenter continues through her brief East Coast summer tour. Apparently, she’s doing it mainly for fun, because there’s no single, album or video to promote. (She said she’ll start to record in August, after coming off the road, with an album due in the first quarter of 2004.)

When the music started, the happy crowd settled in with a bottle of wine and a few lighted candles to hear what Carpenter has been up to since their last visit together.

“So much has happened, ladies and gentleman,” she said early in the show. “For starters, I got married. I know it’s a shock. And that took some time.” After the crowd congratulated her with applause, she added, “And I cut my hair and had to go into therapy for that.” Indeed, it’s as short as it is on the album cover of her 1989 album, State of the Heart.

Though she joked with the audience about choosing her over the opening night of the movie Gigli, she proved that she’s always a safe bet for an entertaining night — far safer than whatever happens to be the most popular thing this week.

Carpenter created a fine set list, drawing on almost all of her Top 10 hits, as well as a few beloved album tracks, like “Halley Came to Jackson” and “Stones in the Road.” She also slipped in a few new songs she’s written.

“My Heaven” reveals her version of the great unknown — which sounds like a remarkable place, abundant with music, art, lighted fountains, grandparents and the late Eva Cassidy singing “Fields of Gold.” If you weren’t a believer already, she’ll make you reconsider. “River” relies on the familiar crisp and rolling melodies that have come to be expected from her.

But the showstopper is “Grand Central Station.” The song was inspired by the story of a first shift rescue worker in the aftermath of 9/11 who feels compelled to visit the famous train station when his work was through. That way, all the lost souls can get back home. It’s devastating, poignant and has the kind of lyric that helps Carpenter maintain her reputation as a songwriter and a poet.

Other highlights of the show included a duet with Emily Saliers from the Indigo Girls and a silly new twist on “I Feel Lucky.” (Here’s a hint: Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett have been cast aside.) She also got a huge kick out of an enthusiastic group of fans with lighted pink flamingos who decided to parade in front of the stage during “Down at the Twist and Shout.” Nobody seemed to mind. After all, they were too busy nibbling on fontina cheese and wheat crackers.

“The Long Way Home”
“Shut Up and Kiss Me”
“The Hard Way”
“Halley Came to Jackson”
“Stones in the Road”
“My Heaven”
“This Is Love”
“Almost Home”
“Right Now”
“Passionate Kisses”
“Grand Central Station”
“The Water Is Wide” (with Emily Saliers)
“I Take My Chances”
“I Feel Lucky”
“Down at the Twist and Shout”

“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”
“Late for Your Life”

“Quittin’ Time”
“Keeping the Faith”