Concert Review: Melissa Etheridge @ Massey Hall, Toronto 7/28/08

“All is love
All is choice
Everyone and every voice
All of life that you see
All are possibilities
As above so below
To wed the sense into the soul
This is truth I believe
I believe I believe

Truth is of the people, by the people, for the people…”

What Happens Tomorrow – Melissa Etheridge

Several months ago, a friend announced that he was treating me to a Melissa Etheridge show, insisting I had to see her perform live.  I accepted out of nostalgia, mainly;  growing up, I can recall days of driving around in my father’s truck with him blaring Melissa’s first two albums at high volume, espousing her talents.  I was in agreeance with him, but somehow never really bothered to buy any of her future albums, nor did I keep track of her beyond the radio singles (all of which I enjoyed) and the story of her battle with cancer.  Her vocal talents conjure up the bluesy rock of Springsteen and the soul of Janis Joplin, two artists that were part of the broad musical background of my youth.

In recent weeks, cancer has crept into my life undesired, laying seige to a dear family member, and under the dark clouds of that knowledge, listening to a sampling of Melissa’s music, namely her 2007 album The Awakening, has been a tremendous comfort that resonates to the core.  By the time the day of the show actually arrived, I would say I almost needed to attend.

I was greeted with a pleasant surprise at the pre-show dinner my friend had arranged:  an autographed ticket, courtesy of a fluke signing in the afternoon at the venue.  A very nice souvenir of what became one of the most awe-inspiring nights of music I’ve witnessed.  The women I spoke with prior to start time who, upon hearing I was a “Melissa virgin”, insisted I would be blown away to the point that I would be “lucky to make it out alive”, weren’t lying.

As the lights dimmed and the band began filling the stage, Melissa’s guitarist Phillip rocked the place he grew up with O Canada on electric guitar, which brought the crowd to an even louder roar.  Melissa rushed on stage as he wrapped up, playfully kicked him in the ass, and launched into her song All-American Girl with gusto.

Two things are striking and key about Melissa’s live performance:  her incredible stage presence and warmth, and her endurance in the performance department.  Clocking her set in at 2 hours and 55 minutes (minus encore applause break) and her voice holding strong until the bitter end, Melissa Etheridge is the Energizer Bunny of live performances, outdoing even Tori Amos (an artist whose fans can vouch for her staying power live).  She smiles, laughs, runs around stage and belts out powerful notes, revelling in the enthusiasm of her enraptured audience.  My voice was hoarse from hooting and hollering in appreciation;  how she was able to wail away during the choruses of show closer Like The Way I Do, I do not know.

The tour’s set presentation is structured around a biographical theme, with Melissa recalling the story of her childhood, her pursuit of her music dreams, her loves lost and won and her battle with cancer using songs both past and present to expand upon and conjure images of her points.  The stage chatter made me nostalgic for early days of Tori Amos’ live shows, where she’d tell several stories a night, as if chatting with old friends.  Melissa laid herself bare, self-deprecating healthily with humour at her bad choices and even recalling her cancer diagnosis with a light touch that spoke of an acceptance of life and the bad it may dish out and the good to be taken from it.  Before launching into her track I Run For Life, Melissa spoke of her cancer and her feeling that it was a blessing in a sense, because it forced her to slow down and think about her life, its direction, and what meant the most to her.  She encouraged the audience to slow down, to take time, to find what makes them happy and go do it, instead of waiting for stress and the ways we harm ourselves to force us to slow down and think of what we truly wanted.  It was incredibly heartening, and at that moment in the show, I decided that I would try, in spite of my current worry and pain, to find joy in life in honour of the family that will soon depart.

Regrets?  A few songs I would have liked to hear weren’t played, but I did get my request (Similar Features) and An Unexpected Rain, my favourite off The Awakening, so I cannot complain much.  It would have been nice to hear Breathe, Piece of My Heart, Map of the Stars as well, but the show was a fantastic set for a virgin whose knowledge slanted towards the very old and the very new.  All in all, an incredible night, and easily in the top twenty live shows I’ve seen.

A few specific highlights:

Don’t You Need/Similar Features/Don’t You Need: A clever blending of two songs, and not the only combination of the night, and Melissa effectively booted the 80’s out of Similar Features and gave it a 90’s rock feel instead.  Absolutely lovely.

An Unexpected Rain:  Brought tears to my eyes near the end, especially when Melissa’s face looked so incredibly pained to sing the final verse.  Phillip is a fantastic guitarist as well, and he punctuates this song with aching chords.

I Run For Life:  One of the loudest moments of the concert, it felt like an enormous outpouring of love for all cancer survivors and those who’ve lost someone, Melissa included.  The applause was incredible at the end.

Bring Me Some Water: Incredibly powerful and rocking live!  Wow!  I’ve always loved this song but hot damn!

Kingdom of Heaven: Tears to the eyes again…  Such an incredibly moving and truth-filled song, it makes you wonder how long it will take for some people to wake up to the reality of how religion is twisted to suit political agendas.

What Happens Tomorrow: Melissa altered the lyrics about a woman becoming President to a verse about ‘a black man’ instead.  Go Obama!  But beyond that, it’s a wonderful song and a fitting closer for the main set.

Like The Way I Do: The intense vocals and jamming on this one, the final song of the night, were made all the more impressive by the context of it being on the tail end of a very long set.  A kick-ass way to leave the venue bopping out the door.

SETLIST:  MELISSA ETHERIDGE @ MASSEY HALL, TORONTO, 7/28/08

O Canada
All American Girl
Into the Dark
California
Don’t You Need/Similar Features/Don’t You Need
Unexpected Rain
Bring Me Some Water
I Want To Come Over
My Lover (spotlight by Melissa on Philip!!)
Let Me Go
Please Baby Please/I’m The Only One
If I Wanted To
Down to One (band eventually leaves the stage until Melissa alone at end of song)
I Want To Be in Love (Melissa starts solo and finishes with the band)
Mercy
I Run for Life
2001/I Need to Wake Up
Message to Myself/Come to My Window
All We Can Really Do
Kingdom of Heaven
Open Your Mind
The Universe Listened/Imagine That/What Happens tomorrow?

Encore
Like The Way I Do

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