CAMBRIDGE -- To those who braved piercing winds and relentless snow late Tuesday night, hearing Keren Ann sing about sitting in the sun was like pulling up to a fireplace and pouring a cup of hot tea. But hold the sugar. Keren Ann's austere songs, in English and French, about sunny days and sad nights, were the perfect antidote to what awaited outside.
The Middle East Upstairs was nearly full, though by the time Keren Ann began her set an hour late (weather conditions left two of her musicians temporarily stuck in Rhode Island), the crowd had thinned considerably. The ones who stayed, however, were treated to three songs from her excellent new album, ''Nolita," out next Tuesday.
Mostly, though, Keren Ann revisited her last album, ''Not Going Anywhere." Sitting close to the microphone, she rendered every syllable crisp with her deceivingly unadorned vocals. Her rainy-day musings actually benefited from a backing band. Whereas her lithe voice dominates on her records, in concert subtle flourishes of French horn, violin, and keyboards give her a full, resonant sound, as if this is how her songs were meant to be heard.
Her delicate guitar progressions, which seemed to stick to three chords, anchored her songs; her bandmates simply hung on her every word.
Even without the album's gauzy reverb, the new song ''Chelsea Burns" was just that: a slow burn that ignited with Keren Ann's harmonica. ''Spanish Song Bird" featured Keren Ann's romanticized notion that even when things are bad, they're still pretty good. ''Life is an endless parade/ It's no sweet lemonade/ Only an empty bottle left in the shade," she sang.
As supple as the music was, this was not the breezy Keren Ann who chatted up the crowd the last time she played the Upstairs. She looked uneasy and bothered -- by feedback problems with her microphone, by the late arrival of her bandmates, and by the loud musicians bleeding in from another venue.
She was gracious enough to the audience, of course, but you could tell she was ready to motor after a single-song encore.
Still, her songs were all you needed. ''Sailor & Widow" was a cinematic vignette that landed somewhere between the Decemberists and Tom Waits. She prefaced ''Sit in the Sun" by saying, ''This is a good song for when it snows." Then again, they all were.
Rachael Cantu and particularly A Girl Called Eddy were ideal openers. Eddy, a.k.a. Erin Moran, evoked comparisons to Aimee Mann, but her earnest piano balladry and bell-clear voice also made you feel like you were tuning in to '70s FM radio in -- where else? -- sunny California.