Review: Melissa Etheridge electrifies and rocks the Garde
New London — Rarely do you get to see a performer of Melissa Etheridge’s sheer power in a theater as intimate as the Garde Arts Center. And, wow, was it a blast.
Etheridge played the 1,400-seat venue Friday like the icon she is, showcasing her arena-sized charisma and classic-rock-concert showmanship — but scaling it perfectly for the small theater.
Etheridge, dressed classic cool in a pair of jeans and a leather jacket, effortlessly commanded attention, whether she was giving a sly sideways glance or throwing her head back and letting loose with a big howl of a note.
Her voice, with its distinctive gravel, lifted songs with soulful vitality. She sounded in quite good form, despite a few raggedy high notes on “I’m The Only One.”
She is someone who seems to feel every lyric; even numbers that she has performed for decades like “Bring Me Some Water” and “Like the Way I Do” sounded fresh and urgent.
(Young musicians would do well to study Etheridge in concert and learn how to put on a killer show by just singing and playing — no backup dancers or pyrotechnics necessary.)
Garde Executive Director Steve Sigel said that people from eight states came to the concert. These happily avid fans helped to create a jubilant atmosphere. They cheered and danced and sang along and flocked down the aisles to get closer to the stage.
This is billed as a Christmas tour, and Etheridge peppered the setlist with some selections from her 2008 release “A New Thought for Christmas,” along with other holiday tunes. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” made a rollicking appearance. Etheridge dug emotionally into what she described as her favorite Christmas song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” before segueing into another John Lennon number, “Give Peace a Chance.”
She shared the story of how meeting and becoming friends with a reservist who served with the U.S. military in the Middle East inspired her to write “Christmas in America”; in the lyrics, the narrator wants a loved one to be allowed to come home for the holidays.
Etheridge promised a concert of peace and joy, and she sometimes sounded like a retreat leader, at one point encouraging concert-goers to be strong, speak the truth, and choose love.
But she could spin a funny tale, too. She talked about how, as a kid, she joined the church choir. But with her self-described “strange” voice, the director put her in the back. And while Etheridge loved “O Holy Night,” a soprano was chosen as the soloist for that carol instead.
In addition to the holiday numbers and rock ‘n’ roll hits, Etheridge also did a cover of “Any Other Way,” one of the Stax Records tunes she recorded for her “Memphis Rock and Soul” album. She sounded born to perform “Any Other Way,” considering the way it sat perfectly in her lower range and allowed her to stretch out her vocals more languorously than usual.
She aced another cover, too: her version of Tom Petty’s “Refugee,” her way of paying tribute to the music legend who died earlier this year.
While Etheridge’s voice is well known as a force of nature, her guitar-playing doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. She showed her chops Friday, particularly with a blistering solo on “Night Divine” and some jam-tastic work on “Ruins.”
She was supported by a very fine band consisting of keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Max Hart, bassist David Santos and drummer Brian Delaney. (Etheridge picked up drumsticks at one point and pounded out rhythms on one side of Delaney’s drum set while he worked the other side. Fun.)
Etheridge must have had a good time Friday. Near the end of her two-hour performance, she said, “I dig this place. I hope to come back here soon.”
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