Band Concert Review
Melissa Etheridge: Her Little Secret
Chicago, IL-House of Blues - March 20, 2004
Blow out on their own dear
Meet me in the dark
Never let me go
I discovered Melissa Etheridge on the Grammy Awards in 1989 where she performed a fiery rendition of "Bring Me Some Water". Although I have bought all of her albums, I had not seen her in concert until recently. She's been an artist I revered greatly, always wearing her heart on her sleeve for anyone to walk on. It's a chance artists don't always take as they are too often condemned for doing it. Love her or hate her, she lets it all hang out for people to criticize or embrace. She's a true and original artist.
In the past decade, some of her albums have been overlooked because of the media attention to her personal life. Whether or not you accept how she has handled her life away from the stage, you owe it to yourself to give her music a fair shake, which many people have not done. The last half decade has seen her renewed with a great sense of artistic purpose, where the music matters more than selling out arenas. Her 1999 album, "Breakdown" is one of the most truthful and heartfelt records I have ever listened to; you experience the yearning and pain she sings about and it's very real. Shortly after its release she and her partner of many years broke up. Her next album, "Skin", a largely acoustic affair, tends to be overlooked because of the simultaneous release of her auto-biography. Looking back on it three years later, I find the album to be a bit monotonous as it has a few treasures on it and a decent amount of filler. However, the tour following the release of the album was startling, where she played alone and acoustic in theaters. Taking a page from one of her idols, Bruce Springsteen, the evening was a reflection of her career and life as she told stories, and played her heart out on the guitar and piano. The tour was documented on the great DVD "Live...and Alone" which showcases her one woman show. The tour exposed her inner demons and gave her audience a look inside. After an artist reaches platinum heights, they sometimes are too afraid to dig really deep and let the world into their own pain and suffering, Melissa embraced it and brought us into her heart, mind and soul. She was performing her songs with great ardor, alone with her guitar. Because of the size of these shows, people were not beleaguered by an arena size crowd or a big band, but could focus on her music and not her personal life.
Reenergized and seeing clearer than she had in years, with newfound happiness in her personal life, she reentered the studio. The end result is possibly one of her all-around best albums to date-"Lucky". The songs on "Lucky" have an optimistic resonance to them, it's impossible not to grin endlessly while listening to the record. It's an empowering record with tough lyrics erected around magnificent melodies. When I heard she was coming to Chicago for a four night stand at the House of Blues, I immediately grabbed tickets for one of the shows. The House of Blues in Chicago may be one of my favorite venues in the world. It's intimate, has great sound and looks like an old opera house. I arrived at the show expecting to see a vigorous performance. Through numerous bootlegs I knew she was a powerful live performer. Yet I had no idea how deep the next three-plus hours would be.
As the lights dimmed, her three-piece band strode on stage one by one, followed by Melissa with a microphone attached around her neck so she could move freely about the stage. Opening with "If You Want To", it became very evident that the standing room only crowd would test their leg muscles as she and her band were dynamic and ready to enliven the 1400 in attendance. Right after the opener, she went into "Your Little Secret" showcasing her ability to perfectly blend new material and her classic hits without missing a beat. A good amount of the new album, "Lucky" including the title track, "Breathe", "Mercy", "Secret Agent" and the album's best track, "Tuesday Morning" were all performed. "Tuesday Morning" was inspired by a member of Flight 93 that went down on 9/11 whom the media overlooked because of his sexual preference. The optimistic and commanding melody does not wash away the meaning of the lyrics, yet with the music and her backing band, the song is as powerful as anything she has ever written. Leading into "Tuesday Morning" was the equally powerful "Scarecrow" written for Matthew Shepherd, who was beaten to death for being gay. The powerful yet understated drums of this song are a sound to be heard. Watching the motion in the small room boil over and the delivery of these two songs back to back are beyond words. She gives her all; you can see the emotion exude from her face as she sings these powerful lyrics. On paper these lyrics may be cliché, but in concert, she takes them to another level, a powerful storyteller reminding me of the likes of Dylan and Springsteen. I found myself being moved in a profound way.
As she moved through new material and her classic hits, I was shocked by how good they all sounded with just a three-piece band backing her up. However, I should not have been surprised as her drummer is Kenny Aronoff, who is arguably one the best drummer's out there. He's a machine behind that kit; it's no wonder he is likely the most recorded drummer from the past decade appearing on every record imaginable including those by Melissa, Michelle Branch, Jon Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper, John Fogerty, Bob Segar, eatloaf, The Bodeans and most notably John Mellencamp. In fact, Mellencamp has lost sharpness as a live performer since Kenny left his touring band back in 1996. I've seen great artists perform with average musicians...you walk away from those shows disenchanted as the music was limp compared to their studio counterparts. I'm certain that a band of inferior musicians would sound mighty being backed by this potent musician. Melissa Etheridge has used Kenny on every tour going back to 1996 and he's one of her secret weapons as a live performer. Kenny elevates her material to another level.
Giving her band a break, Melissa played four songs by herself on acoustic guitar and piano, including an affecting version of "The Weakness In Me", a cover originally performed by Joan Armatrading. The haunting vocal Melissa delivered to the intimate crowd made you believe she penned the tune herself. "Meet Me In The Dark" followed, a tune off of "Lucky", which had her band coming in midway through the song. I dismissed this song upon my first listen of the "Breathe" as simply another ballad, but I was deeply mistaken. Her melancholy delivery made me take a second look. Upon seeing it live, I can only hope to see it performed on future tours. She told the crowd a story about how the record label was less than pleased with the album on first listen; further proof that record labels don't have a clue on what to do with an artist of any value these days. They are more engrossed in the quick fix, instead of long term careers. After having her record company tell her she needed more hits, she went home and wrote a song for the fan who sits there with a new album and relishes every lyric and note upon their virgin listen. "Meet Me In The Dark" was written by Melissa out of this frustration as she explained to the crowd. "Meet Me In The Dark" is Melissa Etheridge at her best. Sadly, the majority of people who know Melissa Etheridge will never know of this song. However, for six minutes on a Saturday night, 1400 people within the House of Blues were mesmerized by the haunting performance; the song is the type to give you goose bumps. I stood there in complete awe as this artist is wearing her every emotion on her sleeve and inspiring others in the process.
The remainder of the evening was all about empowerment; "Bring Me Some Water", "The Only One", "Like The Way I Do" and the thunderous encore of "Giant" show an artist who has carefully conceptualized a set list with themes and narratives. Bruce Springsteen has made a career of this and very few artists have even come close to the supremacy of his performances. They are like a revival-you walk out a believer. I've always admired Melissa Etheridge and her brutal honesty, but I left the House of Blues, feeling like a "Giant" as her performance was better than it ever should have been. She did what I believe every artist should do, give more than 100% on the concert stage. In the age of tickets prices higher than most sky scrapers in Chicago, artists are too often resting on their laurels giving us the same performances from a decade ago where the ticket price was a fifth of what it is today. Melissa has scaled down her show, but rewarded her fans with performances than are beyond potent. We paid her well and she gave us a show that lasted well over three-hours. To put that in perspective, of the two dozen times I have seen Bruce Springsteen, I have only seen him do a show this long six times.
She's an artist whose recordings is only the tip of the iceberg and let me confirm that this iceberg is huge. She's a prevailing live performer. I anticipated seeing an enjoyable show but what I witnessed went beyond my wildest expectations as she gave it her all like an up and coming band hoping to entrance an audience. The profound simplicity of her show which focused on music, not gimmicks, make most other acts look foolish who spend more time on their stage shows than the song selections.
When listening to Melissa Etheridge, I feel like she's letting me in on her own personal diary entries; like she is speaking directly to me about her yearning for love and acceptance, which strikes me as incredibly gentle and true. This is why she has struck such a chord with a mass audience. More than her words, her velvet voice makes you FEEL that yearning. There is so much emotion in the lyrics and her delivery takes the simple words to another level. For a little over three hours, in a small club in Chicago, she made me and 1400 others believe as we slowly danced among ourselves in the dark. None of us were alone or lost, we had a spirit filled with light to lead the way; that light was the music of Melissa Etheridge.