Few musical formats can inspire dread like songwriters-in-the-round, and the four songwriters who constitute Voices on the Verge–Jess Klein, Erin McKeown, Beth Amsel, and former Chicagoan Rose Polenzani–knew that all too well when they were first booked together that way in November 1998. So they tweaked the formula: they each sang some of their own songs but developed scrappy arrangements to allow all the participants to join in–on harmony vocals, contrapuntal guitar and piano lines, light percussion, and even some delicate clarinet by Klein–without going so far as to become a “band.” But even if all four had simply done the 30-minute solo sets they were supposed to do, the show would’ve been noteworthy for its sheer variety. Klein’s sweet tunes are streaked with a subtle pop sensibility, while Amsel works in the more narrative new-folk vein of Dar Williams and Shawn Colvin. On her recent eponymously titled album for Daemon, Polenzani electrified her dark folk songs, loosening her stunning voice but never losing control of it. And McKeown’s latest full-length, Distillation (Signature Sounds, 2000), nonchalantly demolishes most contemporary folk paradigms: alternately jaunty and moody, she roams freely between various prerock styles but never sounds dutifully revivalist. There’s a jazzy fluidity to her phrasing, which sometimes wriggles out of her grasp, but even when it does the ensuing struggle is compelling. On the collective’s debut album, Live in Philadelphia (Rykodisc), recorded in a studio with an audience, the individual selections heighten the distinguishing characteristics of each songwriter, but the co-op approach keeps the whole cohesive. Wednesday, February 13, 7 and 10 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. Thursday, February 14, 5 PM, Crow’s Nest Music, 1157 W. Fullerton; 773-935-9196.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Linder.