Melissa Etheridge at the Concert Hall
Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Monday, 10 July 2012
As anybody lucky enough to have seen American singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge on her previous Australian tours will attest: Goddamn, the woman can sing. Though she’s also a virtuosic instrumentalist, it’s her powerhouse voice that is her true calling card and tonight it’s at its astonishing and capacious best.
By turns suffused with the blues, with rock and roll, and even occasionally with whisper quiet intimations of something approaching folk-rock, that unmistakable and powerfully raw voice is in truly brilliant form throughout the first show of her first Australian tour since 1996.
Ably supported by a small but flawless band comprising a guitarist, bassist and drummer, Etheridge strides onstage during an extended instrumental opening number, throwing her head forward as she strums her acoustic guitar. With her blonde hair completely shielding her face, she’s utterly in the moment, having surrendered herself completely to the music.
It’s a couple of minutes before she looks up, grins broadly, and launches into the title track of her most recent album, 2010’s Fearless Love. Like many of Etheridge’s searing and emotive songs, ‘Fearless Love’ articulates the desire for a love that is just that: uncompromising, mutually supportive, enduring and unencumbered by pride or fearfulness.
“I am what I am / And I am what I am afraid of / I need a fearless love / Don’t need to fear the end / If you can’t hold me now / You will never hold me again,” she sings. “I want to live my life / Pursuing my happiness / I want a fearless love and I won’t settle for anything less.”
It’s a message that speaks equally to the importance of self-respect and to a quest for happiness and fulfillment, both romantic and personal, that is repeated in the few words she speaks to the crowd before later walking offstage. Before she takes off her beloved electric guitar, she essentially exhorts us to be brave, to be fearless, to strive for happiness and to never lose hope: “Be strong. Speak true. Spread the peace.”
“She’s never anything less than utterly authentic and completely transfixing.”
Coming from a less authentic performer, it might sound mawkishly sentimental, but it’s difficult to doubt Etheridge’s sincerity. Between her own personal battle with breast cancer and a couple of difficult, tabloid-documented public break-ups, she has been to hell and back, looked both death and her own inner demons square in the face and, somehow, survived.
As the evening’s setlist gradually reveals itself, it transpires that Fearless Love is one of only two songs she performs from that album. She tears up the stage with a fierce rendition of Nervous that, like many of the night’s performances, allows her the space and time to experiment, free-form style, as both an instrumentalist and a vocalist.
The song itself is Etheridge at her most raw – it’s a stomping, swampy, blues rocker of a tune that offers her ample time and opportunity to jam extensively with her band as well as mix the song up a little by launching into slower paced sections that cleverly incorporate verses from Fever, the smoky, sensuous song recorded by many but probably still most often associated with jazz legend Peggy Lee.
It’s the sort of gamble many musicians might lose, but Etheridge’s is a seamless, inspired and completely unexpected marriage of two wildly different songs, written decades apart, that nonetheless both traverse similar emotional territory. Both songs allude as much to the nervousness one feels around a prospective lover as to the sensuality and sexual chemistry that can fuel such attractions. Interestingly, much of Etheridge’s setlist tonight comprises some of her best, most wide-ranging and deeply personal meditations on sexuality, sexual identity, love, lust, infatuation, longing and heartbreak.
In terms of explicitly articulating lesbian love and desire, Etheridge has pretty much written the queer female songbook since she released her self-titled debut album back in 1988. Like Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, who released their own self-titled debut in 1989, Etheridge is an openly gay woman who has always written, and continues to write, searing and honest songs about lesbian love and desire. Though she came out publicly in 1993, she’s never hidden her sexuality, never changed pronouns in lyrics or obfuscated what it is she’s singing about and, in that regard, she set an historic musical precedent.
As a teenager in the early ‘90s, I first discovered both Etheridge and the Indigo Girls. For me, a shy and bookish girl growing up on the Gold Coast, theirs were the records to which I looked for comfort and reassurance that, yes, there were other gay women in the world, living their lives, experiencing everything from lust and love to confusion and heartbreak; theirs were the songs that made me feel I was not as alone, as strange or as isolated as I often felt when I was initially starting to approach the fraught, oftentimes tricky and difficult business of coming to terms with my own sexuality.
Whether she is writing from her own perspective or crafting a prosaic story about the life of another, Etheridge always remains the consummate storyteller. When she sings of her own experience, it’s undeniable that she performs with a palpably heightened intensity, her voice capturing and conveying every agonising or joyous nuance of the lyrics she’s singing, but it seldom matters exactly what it is that she’s singing, simply because she’s never anything less than utterly authentic and completely transfixing.
Though Etheridge has released seven studio albums in the 16 years since she last visited Australia, the night’s setlist draws solidly from her earlier catalogue, largely eschewing anything much released post-1995, other than the two songs from Fearless Love and a couple of other tunes. Deciding which songs to perform must have been a tough call to make, given the sheer wealth of material from which she had to draw and there was admittedly something a tiny bit disappointing about the inevitable knowledge that only so much could be played in a single performance.
Onstage for almost two-and-half-hours, with no intermission, Etheridge is a generous, openhearted performer who interacts playfully with the crowd. Rather amusingly, she seems especially fond of two punters with tambourines that light up when shaked, even involving them in a couple of songs, and equally impressed by some die-hard devotees in the front row clad in custom-made t-shirts. They also wore hoodies emblazoned with lyrics from the just-released single, Falling Up, taken from Etheridge’s forthcoming seventeenth studio album, 4th Street Feeling, currently slated for an early September release.
Etheridge plays the sold-out crowd a set that consists of two songs from Fearless Love, five from her self-titled debut (‘Chrome Plated Heart’ and ‘Don’t You Need’ among them), two from 1989’s Brave and Crazy (the title track and ‘You Used To Love To Dance’), two from 1993’s Yes I Am (‘If I Wanted To’ and ‘Come To My Window’) and another two from 1995’s Your Little Secret (‘I Want To Come Over’ and ‘Nowhere To Go.’)
She also includes the aforementioned new single and I Run For Life, a song penned both about her own battle with breast cancer, other women battling the disease and research fundraisers that contains the haunting and confronting line: “They cut into my skin / They cut into my body / But they will never get a piece of my soul.”
As Etheridge told SameSame back in April, the illness changed her irrevocably, fundamentally altering her entire approach to life and sending her on a spiritual journey. It renewed her zest for life, she said, and that irrepressible joie de vivre is fully evident, both as she performs and during the reflective, contemplative moments when she addresses the audience between songs.