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REVIEW: Melissa Etheridge – Take 2 (Ordway)

It was -2 degrees in St. Paul on Thursday, but the lot of us still went out to watch Melissa Etheridge perform her tribute album, MEmphis Rock and Soul [sic]. We were kept warm by the artist’s timely reworking of iconic R&B-rock hybrids off the Memphis-based label, Stax Records. Covering gems from the heyday of 60s Southern soul, Melissa turned the Ordway’s Music Hall into an oversized living room for a swayful and intermission-less two hours (or more? IDK…time was suspended in favor of a communal coming together of spectacle and spectator.)

Melissa Etheridge in a Berlin dressing room.

First off: I don’t walk around the grocery store with half the self-assuredness Melissa projects on stage, backed by David Santos (bass), Brian DeLaney (drums), and Matt Hart (keys/guitar.) The two-time Grammy winner (and 15-time Grammy nominee) has been drawing commercial and critical acclaim for decades with her smoky vocals, confessional songwriting, and iconography as an LGBT musician. What that hit list of prominent achievements didn’t prepare me for—and what was mesmerizing to witness in person—was the extent of her technical mastery as a musician and how well the bluesy undercurrents of her voice would lend themselves to the deft and admiring interpretations of Stax Records artists like B.B. King, Otis Redding, William Bell, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers.

This latest album celebrates Etheridge’s influencers, and her influencer’s influencers. And it’s not only her influencers, it’s Rock and Roll’s influencers. Her renditions of blues standards like B.B. King’s “Rock me Baby” and William Bell’s “Any Other Way” pull the audience up from their plush, rose-colored seats to move like inflatable air dancers in a parking lot. Nods to the current political and social climate feel just, inspiring, and sobering with covers of the classic “Born Under A Bad Sign” (popularized by both Albert King and Cream) and a soulful reinterpretation of The Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” to which she received the master backing tracks and the green-light to lyrically update.

Melissa Etheridge’s authenticity on stage opens your heart like it’s spring loaded. She is grateful for everything: for her band and us, for the operatic aesthetic of the Music Theater we’re coming together in, for her wife, for the opportunity to cover the work of her influencers, for the ASL interpreter upstage to her right painting “I would dial the numbers just to listen to your breath” (from “Come To My Window”) with her hands.

Not once does she break the gleeful, soulful connection between herself and her audience—even when a fan rushes the stage (to be promptly escorted off by three suits). Even through all the instrument transitions: She’s got a dude on staff whose sole job (I’m exaggerating) is to shepherd and switch out one of four guitars she uses throughout the performance. And then there’s the time when she whips out a harmonica out of god knows where (her pocket, probably) and soulfully lays down the melody to “I’m The Only One” before launching full-band into the familiar, Grammy-winning heartwrencher from 1993. At one point, two drumsticks appear in her hands and she stands behind drummer Brian DeLaney as they set off on a highly-energetic a five-minute drum solo in tandem.

Melissa is, without a doubt, the nicest person you’ve ever wanted to make both your Aunt and your lover. She can slay on 6+ instruments / is a musical genius / sounds vocally exactly how she did twenty years ago / makes you want to burn your bra and call your ex at the same time / etc., etc., etc. She encourages us to “choose love” in 2017, and with her as a relative helm of that movement and this moment, we think we can do it. We leave the Music Theater baking in it.

Ali O'Reilly