Melissa Etheridge Saturday, May 6, the Opera House
Melissa Etheridge has great rock ‘n’ roll instincts.
Saturday night, she captivated a sold-out Opera House crowd with her big, expressive voice, love of loud guitars and a sense of drama borrowed from Springsteen (who got it from Little Richard and Roy Orbison).
As a songwriter and performer, Etheridge owes a big debt to Springsteen, which she happily acknowledges. Her songs are filled with Springsteen-like images of distances and darkness and his influence is felt in the juxtaposition of small details with anthemic choruses, shifting dynamics and emotional, wordless vocals.
And, like Springsteen, she works hard to connect with her audience. During the opening “All American Girl,” she threw herself in a full circle and landed facing the audience. She paused there for a moment, staring intently ahead, then flashing a big “hi-there!” grin.
Etheridge is one of those rare performers who can charm you with a small gesture and move you with a big one. Her understated, Kansas-inflected patter felt genuine, yet she was also believable at her most dramatic.
During “Silent Legacy,” which powerfully argues for freeing oneself from the past, Etheridge fell to her knees to play her guitar Hendrix-style, then sank to the floor to lie beside it. Throwing her leg across its body, she caressed the strings like a lover.
Then she rose, microphone in hand and, without missing a beat, segued into the desperate “Dance Without Sleeping.” Only daring performers pull off gestures like that, and Etheridge made it work.
Not surprisingly, when she turned her attention to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae,” a worn-out rock chestnut if there ever was one, she gave it new life. The song was perfect for her raspy, bluesy voice, which is often compared to Janis Joplin’s.
There’s another quality that places Etheridge squarely in the great rock tradition - she has an outsider’s passion for living honestly, and it elevates her music and her show beyond what the mainstream normally produces: “Remember how they taught you,” she sang in “Silent Legacy,” “How much of it was fear/ Refuse to hand it down/The legacy stops here.”
Etheridge has used a different band at every stage of her career, and though this was just the second night of her current tour, her small group had the feel and heft of a real road band. It’s just a four-piece, with Etheridge holding down the rhythm-guitar spot, but they made plenty of noise, without ever overwhelming the star.
Good as she was, though, Etheridge’s show fell short of greatness. The show lacked the pacing and variety that more originality in the arrangements, additional instrumentation or backup vocals would provide. Not even Springsteen tries to carry the show singlehandedly the way Etheridge does. She has the potential to step up to the next level; time will tell if she succeeds.
“Until I see you again, and I know I will see you again,” she told her fans before her final encore, “be strong, speak true and have a good time.”
The show was opened by Joan Osborne, a petite, big-voiced singer who led her sharp, young band through a wicked, bluesy stew of a set. Her music blends sexuality and spirituality in a way that eludes most white musicians, and she presents it onstage with a raw vigor that’s fascinating to watch.
“We’re just the hors d’oeuvres on the plate,” Osborne cracked, but there isn’t any question that she could easily be the main dish, the salad and the dessert, too. If there’s any justice, we’ll hear much more from Osborne, whose first major-label release is out on Island. Watch for her.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HIGHLIGHT “Silent Legacy”/”Dance Without Sleeping”
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