One of the reasons I have this site is to document live music experiences because seeing live music is right up there with air, water and food as far as hierarchy of needs goes.
And there’s something extra special about seeing a musician whose music you love for the first time live.
Such was case on the night of Oct. 3 when my friend Le Anna and I ventured to Burlington, Vermont to see Roan Yellowthorn at The Higher Ground.
This was one of those times when I texted a friend and essentially said “Babe, come do a thing with me. I’ll have you back in 24 hours.” There was only one response that was acceptable and Le Anna nailed it: “I’m in.”
And talk about bonuses of epic proportion. Roan Yellowthorn was opening for singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick who I’ve been a hardcore fan of for decades.
So who is Roan Yellowthorn? Permit me to unpack that question for you with gleeful enthusiasm.
Roan Yellowthorn is the name under which Jackie McLean records and performs under, at least for the moment but I’ll get to that part. Hang on.
McLean’s a native of Camden, Maine and I first became aware of Roan Yellowthorn toward the end of June of this year. The latest album, released in May, is called “Another Life” and it didn’t take long for it to become one of my favorite albums of the year with songs like “Acid Trip,” “Bloodline,” “Vampire,” and the title track among several others.
Jackie and I connected and I wrote a thing for the Portland Press Herald (my fabulous day job!) about her album and her backstory. Take three seconds and give it a read.
She now lives Plattsburgh, New York and I wasn’t sure when the opportunity would arise to get to see her do her thing live so heck yes, I drove four + hours each way. And I’d do it again.
Which brings me to that Sunday night in Vermont.
Jackie, who often plays her with percussionist husband Shawn Strack, opted to play her set solo. It was just she and her keys. The place wasn’t packed but the seated crowd was more than respectable.
I stood towards the back and moved around a bit to shoot photos but also had several moments of being still and taking in the five songs she played.
Listening to an album you love is like having your heart held. Hearing songs from it live is like your heart is being given a gentle squeeze. I love that feeling. I dare say I live for it.
You never know what a live experience is going to be like. There are SO MANY factors. What mood am I in walking in there? Where’s my head at? Where’s the artists head at? Did their soundcheck go OK and are they feeling good? You just never know until the house lights are dimmed and the artist walks on stage and starts their set.
Jackie did not disappoint. She opened with “Bloodline” and it was the perfect choice because hearing the refrain of “I’m fucked in the head, I’ve always been…” live was glorious. She also put a little twist in it on the line “I’m Not Fine” which went up way higher than on the album. Bonus points awarded!
From there she chose a track from the 2018 debut album “Fingerless Gloves.” Whomever said hell hath no fury like a woman scorned was ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. The song takes a look back at a relationship gone sour and it does so with a bouncy pop tune that packs a whole into it in under two and a half minutes.
Then McLean busted out a new song she has just written five days ago to make her performance, as she humorously put it “a little more nerve wracking.” The song is called “Invisalign” and she sang that she has “finally fixed my teeth after 20 years. ” Early on I thought to myself that it was sweet and clever. Then the song took a sharp turn into an emotional landscape that caught me completely off guard. WHICH I LOVED. “Sometimes when you have a dream/You watch it rip right at the seams/The thing you tried to keep alive is looking like it won’t survive/What are you without it now/A crown of thorns you wore around/Feeling humbled and ashamed/Can’t even bring yourself to speak its name.” Epic. Five Stars. A+.
McLean continued her too short but none the less stellar set with “Vampire,” which she explained is about the kind of vampires that aren’t interested in your blood but rather have their sites set on sucking the will to live out of you. Even without the percussion and other instruments on the studio version, McLean nailed the song with just her voice and keys. “No ropes can ever hold you/ You always will escape/You’re like a vampire who’s never gonna go away.”
“Acid Trip” is one of the singles from “Another Life” and hey, while I have you, check out the video with its more than 150K views. Great effing song right here:
The stripped down Vermont version still shined though and the refrain of “Yesterday I let it go/When you know you know” still packed a punch.
A few days after my Burlington visit I reached out to McLean and asked if she’d be cool if I tossed a few questions across state lines for her to answer. She was into it.
Jackie told me that it felt amazing to play at Higher Ground, a venue she’s wanted to play at for years. From there I wondered how it was for her to play her debut there as a solo performer. She said a lot about it and so here’s the full response:
I don’t always play solo. In the past, I’ve played mostly with my partner Shawn on percussion. We also have a full band we play with so we’ve been doing that lately too. But I have a special place in my heart for doing solo shows. I want to do more of them moving forward. There’s an intimacy that can’t be replicated. Even moreso after the past year we’ve had, I crave that feeling of connection. Playing solo feels very honest and vulnerable. I love it, especially when I’m performing in a place where the music is central and I know people will be listening. It’s a lot more nerve wracking to play solo because there’s nothing to fall back on. If I make a mistake, no other instrument will cover it up. It’s all on me. But there’s a rush I get from that challenge. Having to rely on myself. The feeling of completing a solo performance and doing it well is very rewarding. I am thankful for opportunities to play these kinds of shows. There’s no other feeling like it.
Then of course there’s the pandemic. We couldn’t NOT talk about it and I was curious about how it felt as Roan Yellowthorn has only played a tiny amount during it. Jackie had some thoughts and I’m sure glad she did because it offered unique insight into the grind and hustle of being a musician.
One thing about the pandemic in relation to shows, for me, is that it’s caused me to be more selective about the shows I do. Before the pandemic, I was grinding really hard. I went for years playing any show I could – no matter how far away it was, no matter whether or not there was any kind of guaranteed audience, no matter how little I got paid. I did many, many shows that required me to drive multiple hours for no money and play for only a handful of people. After a while, that gets really exhausting. After the imposed break from playing live shows, I can’t imagine going back to that again. I want to protect my energy. And I really only want to play shows that I feel will be a net positive experience. This was definitely an example of that. And it felt really good to get to have that experience.
McLean had mentioned to me that her next album will likely be under hew own name rather than Roan Yellowthorn. I asked for details.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. For probably the past 3 years, I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not I should perform under my own name. I started out using “Roan Yellowthorn” as a kind of shield. It protected me from feeling too vulnerable. It gave me an alter ego to inhabit. Over the past year or so, I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin. With my own identity. With my own name. There’s a part of me that’s really yearning to integrate all of the parts of myself into one. To take the art that I create, art which is usually very personal and revealing, and claim it as my own. As of now, I do want to put out my next album under my own name. It feels like the next step in a natural evolution. I still have to figure out the logistics of making it happen. But it’s what I feel drawn to do right now.
As for that album, much of it was written fairly recently and McLean shared that she has has grown as an artist and a person. She hopes the album will see the light of day in 2022. I for one will be waiting!
We went on a five-week road trip this summer in an RV all across the country and I wrote most of the songs during that time. I’ve written a few more since we’ve gotten back. I also took a break from social media towards the end of the summer that’s kind of still ongoing. Having that mental and emotional space freed up has really helped me to feel more creative and aligned. I think there have been some themes that have emerged. My last album was a lot about processing past trauma. I was really in the thick of it while I was writing. I feel like I’ve moved forward from that. Writing my last album was instrumental in the healing process. I feel free now to explore parts of my own universe. In this album, there are some songs about people who have been important to me. Portrait songs. And there are songs about where I am now. There’s no immediate trauma to explore. I don’t have as many questions as I did when I was writing the last album. In these songs, I’m examining realities that I see. It’s more taking stock of where I am and where I’ve been. The journey I’ve traveled so far.
Finally, I checked in with McLean the person, rather than just the artist. She went through some pretty intense stuff this year, some of which was in the public eye. I asked her to share with me whatever she felt comfortable sharing and kept the question open-ended. If it sounds like I’m being vague, it’s intentional. If you read my Press Herald story above then you know. Her dad’s famous and there’s a fair amount to unpack. Or not unpack. You can go down that rabbit hole later if you’re curious or you can leave it be. I’m here to say primarily that I love Jackie’s music and think Roan Yellowthorn is a great band. But also, I’ve come to understand how much McLean’s a survivor who has worked her ass off to find the light during some very dark times. So she has my respect twice, as a musician and as a warrior. Now onto Jackie’s thoughts on my check-in question.
In many ways, the initial media things that came out were very triggering for me. I went into kind of a cocoon after the Rolling Stone article came out and I felt like I didn’t even want to exist. I felt very vulnerable and half-understood. Like this very private part of me was being shared without the context of all of the other parts of me. It also felt scary not to have any control over how any of it might be perceived. It was honestly a mindfuck in many ways. But, weirdly, when my dad responded publicly, it felt oddly liberating. Like I was finally free after thirty years of bondage. Like everything was finally out on the table and nothing was hiding in the dark anymore.
At this point, I feel settled. I feel that I’ve said what I need to in order to make it clear where I am in the context of a family trauma. And, in many ways, I feel free now to move forward. The narcissistic parental abuse that I sustained throughout the first 29 years of my life still informs who I am and how I move through the world. But it’s not something that torments me the way that it did before. And it’s not big things that have changed. It’s little things. I can relax now without feeling as anxious. I don’t feel as much pressure to gain external validation. I feel more free to explore. To listen to my instincts. To do what makes me feel happy. I’m discovering myself for the first time. It’s a really good feeling that I’ve waited a long time to feel. And this feeling is a direct result of speaking out and, in effect, liberating myself.
Amen, Jackie. Amen.
Follow Roan Yellowthorn on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and their website. Listen to their music. Buy their music. If they come anywhere near you, go see them live. I sure as shit can’t wait for my next chance.