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Mining a 'Sunny' Disposition


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Shawn Colvin has taken on ballast lately in ways healthy for her fame, her happiness and her artistry.

The Grammys she won in February for "Sunny Came Home," the record and song of the year, are the kind of cargo that can make a career sail smoothly; the acclaim brought an extra buzz to the evening Saturday as she began a four-night run (ending Tuesday) of solo acoustic shows at the Coach House. The South Dakota-raised, Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter has enjoyed welcoming crowds there in many stops since the early 1990s, and no ice needed to be broken with this adoring near-capacity house.

Colvin didn't mention the Grammys, much less crow about them, but she was clearly delighted to be carrying another large trophy front and center under a maternity dress. Colvin made child-bearing a focus of between-songs observations and storytelling so relaxed that the stage seemed like her patio.

Most important, Colvin's current album, "A Few Small Repairs," has the weight and cohesiveness her three previous ones lacked.

Drawing primarily from "Repairs," she applied her airy, youthful voice to resonant, pared-to-essentials material that exceeded her earlier, superficially attractive but seldom distinctive work. Colvin has learned to state less and imply more in her writing, finding a thematic focus with songs that illustrate how people can trap, deny and diminish themselves to the point that it may be necessary to incinerate all their baggage and start again.

That's what happens in "Sunny Came Home," which Colvin placed in a set-closing sequence that crystallized the search for balance. "Steady On," the semi-hit that established her career in 1989, found our heroine trying to calm fraying emotions after a romantic upset; it featured the strong, chopped-out guitar rhythms that make Colvin a sort of distaff Neil Young.

The protagonist of "Sunny" is seen trying to steady herself by torching an intolerably unhappy home. Stripped down to a solo piece, it flattered the Grammy voters' judgment with its admirable songcraft, in which terse, expectant verses give way to an aching, fluttering and emotionally unmoored chorus, and a darkening, ominous bridge conveys Sunny's drastic answer to her problems.

Less believable, and too bluntly put, is the editorializing tag: "She's out there on her own and she's all right." Sure, Sunny's action has its hopeful tearing-down-to-rebuild slant, but "she's all right" doesn't really respect the majestic, histrionic madness of the gesture. But that flaw didn't detract from the power and pleasure of the number.

Colvin then moved into "Nothin' on Me," a buoyant kiss-off song steeped in Rickie Lee Jones' style. It ended her pre-encore set (as it does the "Repairs" album) with a vision of how a resourceful, self-possessed person makes necessary repairs to a damaged life.

Colvin's observations about pregnancy didn't cloy. They included offbeat musings about its odd effect on her toenails and a funny story about Lyle Lovett's disgust at songwriters who sing about their kids. Having made a few significant repairs to her formerly self-involved songwriting, maybe Colvin can pleasantly surprise him too.

Ana Egge, Colvin's handpicked opener from Austin, sang impressively and commanded the stage with charming enthusiasm. Her rich, clear voice has striking depth for a 21-year-old, thanks largely to the loamy and lovely hues of a nicely controlled, subtle vibrato.

Egge's performance--including some nimble, folk-blues guitar playing--easily topped "River Under the Road," the 1997 debut album that got Austin buzzing. It's too early to tell, but she might fit into the folk-blues-country tradition of Michelle Shocked, Lucinda Williams and many other worthy song-crafters from Texas.

* Shawn Colvin and Ana Egge perform through Tuesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $26.50-$28.50. (714) 496-8930.

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