Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin certainly has a lot of nerve.
The South Dakota native demonstrated it three years ago when she released "Cover Girl," an album filled with her versions of songs written by some of the most valuable and distinctive voices in all of pop, from Bob Dylan and Tom Waits to Steve Earle and Sting.
Unfortunately, her own interpretations for the most part lacked the character and point of view of the originals, leaving anyone new to her work without much reason to check out her own music.
On Sunday at the Wiltern Theatre, Colvin placed herself in an equally challenging position by following on stage Freedy Johnston and Patty Griffin, two other writers whose best tunes carry the individuality and revelation of some of the artists Colvin saluted in the 1994 collection.
When Colvin did step on stage, she proved to be engaging personally. She charmed the appreciative audience with humorous stories between songs and by interacting playfully with members of her four-piece band.
Musically, however, most of her own songs--especially the many from the new "A Few Small Repairs" album on Columbia--seemed as colorless as the "Cover Girl" album, making it a long two hours indeed.
The length of her set was especially frustrating because the opening acts had been on stage so briefly.
Griffin, a New Englander whose "Living With Ghosts" album on A&M was one of the pop gems of 1996, had time for only five songs during her half-hour turn, and Johnston, a Midwesterner whose "Never Home" on Elektra shapes up as one of the prized works of 1997, clocked in at less than 45 minutes.
Though appearing in a solo acoustic role, Griffin was also victimized by a mushy sound mix that made it hard to make out many of the words. That's a shame because Griffin is someone worth hearing. In her album, she deals with the familiar pop theme of extreme romantic tension but speaks with the candor and depth to make it genuine and fresh.
If Griffin's songs are relatively straightforward confessionals, Johnston mixes effortless pop-rock melodies with deceptive lyrics that are often as wry or multilayered as those of Elvis Costello.
Backed by a three-piece band, Johnston sang in a gruff storyteller voice whose neutrality only added to the mystery of the songs. The highlight of the new album and Sunday's set was "Western Sky," a lovely ballad about a two-day drive that helps explain the narrator's sense of extreme longing and need.
It is telling that one is left with less to say about Colvin, even though she was on stage so much longer.
Colvin specializes in a sort of muted folk-pop style that owes a debt to the intimacy and grace of Joni Mitchell. But Colvin reflects that influence more as a singer than as a writer. Her most powerful moment Sunday came when she used her lovely voice to great effect on an inspired version of Roly Salley's bittersweet, country-accented "Killing the Blues," whose emotional heart she also captured on "Cover Girl."
Where Colvin once injected a smart, introspective edge into her own songs, on the new album she seems to be working in a much simpler and less absorbing style. Though much of "A Few Small Repairs" is about that familiar topic (romantic pitfalls), you don't really feel her complaints. There is more detail and definition in a single song on Ani DiFranco's 1996 "Dilate" album than on the whole collection. The weakness was all too apparent Sunday.