You heard her before you saw her. Still standing out of sight from the audience, Melissa Etheridge whipped through the opening chords of “Ain’t It Heavy” before walking on stage to thunderous applause, smiling broadly as she walked — skipped, practically — through the vast collection of guitars and other instruments that provide the musical backbone for her “This is M.E. Solo” tour.
She had the look of a woman-child in her own personal playground, carrying herself with the joy-filled demeanor of someone who had not only achieved her childhood dreams, but was continuing to expand on them with every passing night.
And, for two hours and 15 minutes Friday night, the sold-out crowd at Grand Sierra’s beautifully renovated Grand Theatre got to live the dream right along with her.
It’s hard to imagine how an artist as accomplished as Etheridge, a multi-Grammy-winning rock pioneer, continues to put so much energy and joy into her work. But she does. Friday’s show was her fifth in six nights (plus she headed for Portland after the show to make it six of seven), and she dove into every song with the same gusto and enthusiasm that first knocked the music world on its rear with her self-titled debut album way back in 1988.
One way she keeps the enthusiasm going is by mixing things up, and she’s mixed them up brilliantly on this tour. She left her touring band behind and is providing all of her own backing music by performing (and looping) a half-dozen or more instruments for each of the various songs.
Nothing was recorded ahead of time; everything done on the spot.
Or, as she said more than once, “It’s all about ME!”
The “magic act” started early, on “If I Wanted To” from 1993’s “Yes I Am” album. Etheridge laid down a bongo beat, added some more percussion, then picked up an acoustic guitar before belting out the lyrics in a stunningly powerful voice that, to this day, sounds more clear live than on most of her albums. Toward the end of the song, she kept the music going by strapping on a double-neck Gibson and laying down the first of her many guitar solos of the evening.
“All the Way to Heaven” was next, with Etheridge repeating the process of looping the percussion before beginning the rest of the music. For many musical acts, this simple act would have probably grown tiresome by the second or third attempt; Etheridge, looking as relaxed as someone plopping down on their easy chair and kicking off their boots, kept every episode fresh and quick, inevitably bounding to her feet to applause after getting the beat down and circling to her fleet of guitars, arms extended outward as if she were, well, an airplane.
Have we mentioned she seemed to be having a good time?
The flight really took off on the fifth song, “I Want to Come Over,” which included a few lines from Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” — a fitting choice, considering the fact so much of Springsteen’s music and energy can still be heard in Etheridge’s best work.
She switched to the piano for a reworked and haunting “Dance Without Sleeping,” a performance so strong you almost wondered when the “M.E. on Piano Tour” was going to be announced.
The show veered from a dedication of the seldom-played “Cherry Avenue” from 1999’s “Breakdown” (to her longtime No. 1 fan, Frank, seated as always in the front row) to “Stranger Road” from her latest album. “Come To My Window” got the biggest singalong of the night and “Monster” saw her playing over her own rhythm with some slide guitar work.
“I’m the Only One,” which earned her a Grammy for best rock vocal performance by a female in 1993, was, not surprisingly, one of the best performances of the night. This could be considered her “American Pie” or “Hotel California,” songs that those artists have, by their own admission, grown tired of playing after a few decades. But there wasn’t a hint of that in Etheridge. She sang and played with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that wouldn’t have been any different if she was trying to impress a group of music publishers who were hearing the song for the first time, even adding some Chuck Berry-like guitar licks at the end.
Her lead guitar work was front and center on many of the closing songs. Make no mistake about it — Etheridge is a fantastic rhythm player, driving the songs with a force and tempo that, dare we say, brings to mind Pete Townshend’s acoustic playing. And while some of her songs (particularly “Monster”) may have screamed out for a more accomplished lead player, her solos were always tasteful, and entertaining, and very fitting to the mood of whichever song she was playing.
That was brave. By switching from acoustic to electric to slide and piano and harmonica and each of the numerous percussion instruments, Etheridge lays her musical talents on the line with every show. She does it without a hint of stress, or worry, and the way she “builds the band” with every song actually became an entertaining part of the show — so much so that, when she actually played a song without any looping (such as “Come To My Window,”) it actually sounded like she was giving the backing band a break and mixing up the set list.
Either way, the joy rang through in every song, right up through the closing “Bring Me Some Water” and the encore “Like the Way I Do.” At 54, Etheridge was still smiling broadly and looked as energetic and playful when she exited the stage as when she first arrived, still hammering out the chords on her acoustic as she walked out of sight.
In fact, you could still hear the music after she’d left the stage. You almost got the feeling she wasn’t going to put her guitar down until she got to Portland.
- Melissa Etheridge at Grand Theatre, Reno
Nov. 20, 2015