The first show of the Mission Creek Summer Sessions was a breath of fresh air, if you could manage a full inhale in the withering heat on Thursday evening. Seeing Iowa City poet Sara McGuirk and now Chicago-based musician Elizabeth Moen live, outside, in a dispersed but solid crowd on the Ped Mall was well worth the flop sweat and dehydration.
Following a brief introduction and general expression of gratitude by Englert Theatre Executive Director Andre Perry, local poet, drag performer and UI writing instructor McGuirk read a series of poems that were lush as a summer evening. One, a designated quar poem, reflected on what and where the pandemic has left us: “Myself alone, here awash, walking / screens onto screens / entangled with a fitbit for Christ’s sake.” Nice to break out of that mold by attending a real performance, eh?
McGuirk’s closing poem was spicier, introduced with a content warning about sexiness and a “bad word about a chicken” (the word was “cock”), that did deliver on its promise of sensuality. I was enchanted.
It was a worthy transition into Moen’s first Iowa City appearance since the last time we saw her play live, packed into George’s in early March 2020, the very day SXSW canceled for COVID-19.
Moen began her Summer Sessions set with “Eating Chips,” originally released with a video in October 2020 as part of her EP Creature of Habit, opening with one of my favorite guitar intros: a dark, tumbling, Southwestern lick that puts you on a horse with a hat and a gun, escaping the disappointment of love for the promise of danger, then knocks you off that horse with lyrics about snacking on crisps. It doesn’t stop at self-deprecating chip talk though; by the end of her first number, Moen was wailing the last verse, “when is the next time I’ll see you,” into the the rain cover on the Weatherdance Stage, honoring the intro with the solemnity of a cowperson on a quest.
“What’s the Rush,” a country number that mingles an analogy of trying food with taking a chance on love, was performed as a duet in which half the verses were sung with captivating sincerity by back-up singer and guitarist Vivi McConnell, an octave above Moen’s alto.
Moen’s backing band — drummer and Iowa City native Abby Black (Biscuit Casual), bassist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya (NNAMDÏ), backup vocalist/guitarist Vivi McConnell (V.V. Lightbody) and Nick Levine (Jodi) on pedal steel, all musicians Moen looked up to as artists before bringing them together for her set — introduced a new spontaneity to her show. The musicians’ approaches to songs we’ve come to know were different and special, and as a whole marked what is likely another new era in the inevitably long career of Elizabeth Moen. The fluidity she maintains by always staying one step ahead of her fans and bandmates is perhaps her most enduring quality. Apart from talent and chops, her drive to lead a band, pivot and reform as necessary will most certainly keep her show on the road.
If you follow Liz on social you would not be entirely surprised by her closing number, a cover of The Lizzie McGuire Movie song “What Dreams Are Made Of,” one which, as described in her banter, was “a little too specific” for this elder millennial who is too old for that shit. But I couldn’t argue with the pack of baby millennials 15 years younger than me rushing the crowd and clearly appreciating her nod to pop culture nostalgia. I didn’t get it and that’s OK; she was willing to make the joke, and the show as a whole was an utter delight.
It’s hard to describe how good it felt to say “I’m riding my bike to see a show downtown now,” after such a long, restricted year. The cocoon was tight — it feels real good to get the wings out.
The next of Mission Creek’s free, nomadic Summer Sessions will be Thursday, July 8 at Wetherby Park with musician ADE and spoken word artist Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey performing, and I will be there with wings aflutter. The remaining lineup for the series, still unannounced, rides on into September. When is the next time I’ll see you? *hat tip*