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Mary Chapin Carpenter; Steve Earle

Whitney Houston may claim that she's every woman, but Mary Chapin Carpenter -- who'd never be so audacious as to make such a boast -- has been proving it for a decade and a half now. She's spoken in the voice of the artsy post-adolescent, the career-driven thirtysomething and most recently in that of the woman on the cusp of middle age.

With:
Musicians: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Duke Levine, John Jennings, Kevin Barry, John Carroll, Dave Maddox; Steve Earle.

Whitney Houston may claim that she’s every woman, but Mary Chapin Carpenter — who’d never be so audacious as to make such a boast — has been proving it for a decade and a half now. She’s spoken in the voice of the artsy post-adolescent, the career-driven thirtysomething and most recently in that of the woman on the cusp of middle age, juggling hopes and regrets — along with a life brimming with contradictions.

Intermittently embraced by a country audience, Carpenter wades into folksy waters at times, occasionally dipping a toe into Sarah McLachlan-styled ethereal pop. Dodging country cliche, she exuded earthy charm on a honky-tonk cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” and a teasing take on her own “I Feel Lucky,” which outstripped the sexual charge of more ostentatious country divas by dint of its slow simmering tone.

Over the course of a short, well-paced set, the Washington D.C.-based singer-songwriter aired both angst and affirmation, punctuating the dozen songs performed with humanizing (and entirely believable) anecdotes about supermarket checkout lines and painful chance meetings with ex-lovers. In both song and story, Carpenter comes off as the good girl who’d give anything to be a little bit bad, but ends up muddling through in the middle of the road.

That proved affecting on gossamer narrative ballads like “Swept Away” and stark, half-spoken tales like “Simple Life,” both of which cut to the quick with tiny lyrical details and smart, sweet phrasing on Carpenter’s part. It grew overweening, however, when she tried too hard to offer affirmations to her listeners. “King of Love,” for instance, was trite enough to pass for an “Ally McBeal” voiceover.

Still, as a feel-good experience — one that did tweak the grey matter more than most country perfs — Carpenter’s set was hard to fault.

Steve Earle didn’t allow the unaccustomed opening slot to dampen his fiery iconoclasm, delivering a solo acoustic performance that showcased both his rough-hewn songs and his skills as an orator. While the former were better-received — particularly the down-and-dirty “Copperhead Road” and a hypnotic, Eastern-tinged “Transcendental Blues” — Earle didn’t tone down his politically charged diatribes for the uninitiated.

The Texan’s pet issue is the death penalty (a cause he’s devoted much time and money to opposing) and the impassioned speech with which he introduced the dark prison tale “Ellis Unit One” was both stirring and nervy, a rare trick for an opener to pull off.

Mary Chapin Carpenter; Steve Earle

Theater at Madison Square Garden,New York; 5,600 seats; $60 top

Production: Presented by Radio City Entertainment and SFX. Reviewed Aug. 15, 2001.

Cast: Musicians: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Duke Levine, John Jennings, Kevin Barry, John Carroll, Dave Maddox; Steve Earle.

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