Melissa Etheridge: Alive and Alone

Most people, when getting over a breakup of a relationship find different ways of coping with grim reality. Some will eat a pint (or more) of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (Chunky Monkey, anyone??), or munch a whole box of chocolates (my personal favorite), or drown their sorrows with their favorite booze. Others devise a personal training regimen so rigorous they could be a contender for the next Olympics. Melissa Etheridge writes songs, and then goes on the road to perform them.

I’ve followed her career since her first self titled album. I first saw her perform in 1989 @ Toad’s Place in New Haven, CT, a small club with SRO (standing room only). That concert was memorable as I got into trouble for standing on the wall of the sound engineers booth in order to see her perform (hey, I’m vertically challenged). While I enjoy her albums, I really love seeing her in concert. I have seen her perform each time she has toured to promote a new album. She’s been in large and small venues, and has performed solo sets interspersed with her band sets.

She inspired me to pick up a guitar and learn to play it (yup, she is in large part why I own the beloved red Guild). She has a marvelous voice, both singing and guitar. I could listen to her sing a phone book! She has wonderful dynamics in her speaking and singing voice, with gravelley, husky overtones that make it quite distinctive. There are some great speaking voices that are just as appealing, like Sean Connery, Patrick Stewart, and James Earl Jones. I’d cheerfully listen to any of them perform, even if they just stood and recited the aforementioned phone book.

Melissa’s music connects in a personal way. On her albums, she sings about love and life in a heartfelt manner. One of the phrases that she has coined and uses during most performances is “Speak True”. Indeed she does, through her songwriting. However, while great songwriting skills may translate into a great album, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist is a good performer. While I strongly believe that live music is one of the best ways to hear an artist, there are many artists that don’t capture the audience in a show. Melissa Etheridge defines a consummate performer.

When performing, she always maintains eye contact with her audience. Instead of looking at her guitar, or off in the distance, she looks at each section of the audience and draws everyone into her music. She is such a dynamic performer that she manages to fill the stage, even when playing solo. When she is playing with a band, she interacts with each musician with enthusiasm. By actively involving each person into her music, she keeps the energy level at her concerts high.

Melissa’s choice of music at her concerts is wonderful as well. Of course, as a lifelong fan, I enjoy almost everything she’s ever written. She manages to use a formula in concert that works very well for many performers. Taking time to play her beloved hits while still showcasing new material allows her audience to feel the same enthusiasm for the newer songs as they have for their favorite oldies.

As with most concerts, there are moments when Murphy’s law will strike. How you cover for those mistakes is something you learn along the way, usually the hard way. For those of you that saw the Concert for New York on TV, she managed to cover well when her vocal mike cut out. During the last live concert I saw in NYC at City Centre, Melissa broke a string on her Ovation. She just changed guitars without missing a beat in the song. When you have a band to cover the notes for you, that’s not such a difficult task. She managed to perform a seamless change while playing solo, a pretty amazing feat. Later that performance she forgot some of the words to a song. She was comfortable enough on stage to talk to the audience, laugh at her self, and pick the song back up. The crowd roared appreciation.

Using other artist’s music to create playful segues is another way that she engages her fans in concert. Melissa played a few measures of Crimson and Clover during her rendition of Your Little Secret, illustrating to her audience that the chords really do sound the same.

This is Melissa’s first solo tour since she stopped playing in bars as a relative unknown. Performing solo without a band seems exhilarating for her. One could look at solo performance as riding the high wire without the safety net of the rest of the band. Using just her guitar and her sense of rhythm, Melissa was able to create the feeling that she had an entire rhythm section backing her. She used her boots to stomp the stage as percussion for one song, and the back of her guitar as percussion on Occasionally. I’ve seen her turn her Ovation over to perform that song many times, but this was the first time I’d seen her play it without a band. With her voice and her hands, she conveyed all of the emotion and power needed.

Melissa remembers her fans when playing, which has always endeared her to her audience. She paid homage to the 15, 20 ,30 people who used to pay a dollar to see her in the bars in Long Beach. She even played a request for “Superfan”, a fan from Germany so named because he has been to over a hundred of her shows. He requested that she play a song she wrote at age 15.

How does Melissa’s performance affect my performance? She inspires. She is so comfortable on stage and she always looks like she’s having so much fun performing. She manages to be playful, impish, and suggestive while on stage. She has a wonderful patter between songs that is spontaneous and genuine. This makes the audience feel at home in her world. I’ve figured out that I, too, can be comfortable in front of a mike. Once you lose that “Oh my God, there are people out there!” feeling, you realize that you are in control of the performance and your audience will go where you lead them.

n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. If you are interested in seeing Melissa Etheridge in concert check out her current tour schedule.