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Music DVD Review: Shawn Mullins – Live at the Variety Playhouse

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It’s amazing how music can take a moment and change it into something else, giving temporary relief for those experiencing trials and tribulations or granting joy to those in desperate need of it.

When my wife Jennifer was a teenager, her mother had a serious stroke and almost didn’t make it. In the car with her father on the way to the hospital to visit mom, it was hard to keep from breaking down entirely. The human spirit has limits. She surfed the radio stations, fretfully, and finally came upon something that soothed her nerves and helped her father as well. The song was “Lullaby.” The artist was Shawn Mullins.

My best friend Matt and I used to go for long drives and talk. We’d talk about girls, our teenaged lives, our parents, movies, music, other shit. He had a big Oldsmobile, a grey one, and we used to take it around this place called Derby Reach late at night and just drive and drive. Listening to the radio, we’d go through the songs of the era and talk about girls some more. But whenever “Lullaby” came on, we’d stop talking and just listen.

With the DVD release of Shawn Mullins’ Live at the Variety Playhouse, it all came flooding back to us. Jen told me the story about her and her father in the car. I told her the story about Matt and me.

The DVD covers a concert that the alt-folk-rock singer put on before a sold-out hometown crowd in Atlanta. It is essentially divided into what is billed as “two full sets,” which the first selection of six songs performed by Mullins alone with an acoustic and the last nine with a full band. The presentation is solid, offering two sides of the troubadour.

It is his storytelling that really makes Mullins a unique performer. Beginning his solo set with the lovely “Twin Rocks, Oregon,” he half-speaks and half-sings a song about a man he met. It is a beautiful piece and his laid-back voice is soothing. The solo set moves forward with other tracks like “Home” and the heart-rending “Lonesome, I Know You Too Well.”

The second half of the set is spellbinding too. Mullins is joined by Peter Stroud, Clay Cook, and Gerry Hansen, fleshing out a talented band that never overdoes it and keeps things rocking. Things get started with the hit “Shimmer” and roll through tracks like “Beautiful Wreck” and “Cabbagetown” with the ease of a group fully in touch with the material.

After a rousing rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” Mullins and the band return for an encore that includes, of course, “Lullaby.” As an additional treat, he is joined on stage by classic soul singer Francine Reed for “All in my Head.” Reed doesn’t do much besides provide a few “na na na” vocals, but her energy is contagious and she’s fun to watch.

This is a must-have for fans of Shawn Mullins and his brand of storytelling through song.

For Jennifer and I, it was a deeply personal and special reminder of the comfort of great songs. Mullins is a talented performer and his music deserves to be heard. Shawn Mullins’ Live at the Variety Playhouse is a great way to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with this truly special artist.

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