By Tulis McCall
Okay – here’s how this shakes out. Prior to attending last night’s show, Melissa Etheridege was a name. It was a name I knew, but I didn’t know why. She was a singer or some such. No idea what any of her songs were. You get the picture.
In my defense – I have to admit that, with rare exceptions, I gave up on music after the Beatles broke up. My heart was shattered. So I carried on with a combination of Motown, Carol King, James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash, Bonnie Raitt. Not really paying attention. Even to people like Beyoncé. Hard to believe, right?
So Melissa Etheridge was a far away name someone dredged up every once in a while.
No more, my little chickadees.
Ms. Etheridge is a gigantic presence onstage, and I am her newest fan. Every seat at the modest theater at New World Stages was taken by people who, unlike me, have been following Etheridge for over three decades. Etheridge was born May 29, 1961, in Leavenworth, Kansas. Yes, THAT Leavenworth, which is no accident because she got her start playing in prisons. She calls these her first captive audiences. Her father was her biggest supporter and fan, supplying her with the guitar she coveted and then escorting her to venues one stage after another. These were small, steady, PAYING gigs in bars where they had music. Etheridge saw more than most 11 years olds and started to develop her chops.
She discovered she was gay while still in Leavenworth, but it was not until she arrived at the Berklee School of Music in Boston that the things ramped up. She lasted a few weeks at school and then left to find work, which she did at a local bar. Pretty soon her clientele was a steady stream of “women who liked women” and they invited her to the bar around the corner which was filled with more women. After months of performing at one bar and then visiting the other, Etheridge was fired for being gay. Yes indeed.
Instead of putting her tail between her legs and skulking away, she hopped into her 1964 Chevy Impala and headed out to L.A. She started over, found other gigs, and was “discovered” by her soon to be manager, Bill Leopold. Leopold in turn introduced her to Island Records’ chief Chris Blackwell. When Blackwell saw Etheridge perform, he signed her on the spot. Island rejected her first album as too glossy and she bargained for four more days to bring them she knew they wanted. The result was a stripped down album, “Melissa Etheridge.” The wheels were in motion.
Let’s pause for a second here. Remember that this was 1988 or so, which means that Etheridge had been performing for 17 years steadily. She found herself gig after gig in one town after another. She is, for all intents and purposes, a self made woman. That, plus her wild and unruly talent, creates a stunning combination.
This show is a guided tour through Etheridge’s life. It is an intimate journey. She has been in three relationships and has four children. She is an award winner over and over – Grammy, Academy Award for Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” GLAAD . She is a cancer survivor and a believer in plant-based remedies. One of her children died from an overdose and she has created the Etheridge Foundation in his honor as well as to support research in plant-based remedies. She adored her father and nursed him when he was dying. Her mother and sister are not spoken of highly. Nor is an ex-partner. She is as loud about people who betrayed her as she is about people who supported her. Frankly this is a part of the show we could live without. Etheridge is an hopeful, positive, spiritual person. The moments when she is spiteful undercut her openness.
Life has been a rollercoaster ride. At every step she tells us, “I did what I do. I created music.” Some of it connected her to the people she loved and some pulled her in other directions. But always, always, it connected to her fans. She is a tour baby through and through and loves to be on a stage feeling the connection to her posse. And believe me the audience feels the same way. The show is nearly three hours long, however, and that is asking a lot even from the die-hards. Etheredge could afford to loose 30 minutes and the show would not suffer one teeny tiny bit.
Above all, she is a kick-ass musician. Her voice could cause an avalanche, the piano lights up when she tinkles its ivories, and her guitars, both 6 and 12 strings, come alive when she harnesses her energy to theirs.
Seriously – whether you know Etheridge’s music or not, this is a performer who will impress the socks off you and then some. I say go get a ticket or two for this rare and intimate performance.
I will list some of her songs here – they are all autobiographical, which is another reason her fans love her. She lets them know her.
“Melisa Etheridge – My WIndow – A Journey Through Life” is written and performed by Etheridge with additional material by Linda Wallem-Etheridge and direction by Amy Tinkham.
Kate Owens plays the part of The Roadie – an unnecessary addition but charming nonetheless.
MELISSA ETHERIDGE – New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street, NYC TICKETS