March 31, 2008

Great Things in Boston Part 2: Laurie Anderson at the Opera House

Ticket for Laurie Anderson Homeland concert, Boston Opera House, 3/29/08
Saturday night's concert at the Boston Opera House by Laurie Anderson on her Homeland tour was, in a word, terrific. The opera house itself is a magnificent place and the restoration appears to have gone well. The only downside of the place was that there's not much leg room, at least not in the mezzanine where we had our seats. Be prepared to get a little bit acquainted with the knees of the person sitting behind you if you go. Still, the acoustics are phenomenal and the decor appropriately regal in a Louis XIV way.

Having seen a few clips from previous shows on Anderson's tour as well as having seen her perform once before in Berkeley about 15 years ago, I was expecting a multimedia eye-popper of a show. I was thus surprised when the performance consisted of Anderson, three accompanying musicians, and a stage set with nothing more than numerous votive candles and a few glaring, bare light bulbs suspended above the stage from long wires. There were otherwise flood and spotlights throughout the performance but there were no high-tech visuals. This was a stripped-down, bare-bones show as far as that aspect goes.

The performance itself was technically perfect and Anderson is as much the consummate artist as ever. Ethereal, fragile sounds alternated with biting humor and poetically skewed analysis of the state of the Homeland. The show began with a poem about the birth of both memory and mortality in a time before the world began and there was nothing but endless flights of birds circling through unbroken sky. A lark's father dies and, not knowing what to do with the body, she buries him in the back of her own head — and so memory came to be.

From there, Anderson launched into a piece about how experts manufacture problems in order to have something to solve. The music was dark, sad, sardonic and mesmerizing throughout. Anderson had the audience in the palm of her hand, eliciting laughter and stunned silence alternately. While most of the pieces she performed flowed into one another, leaving no time for audience reaction, there were a couple of moments when a piece would end and the audience took a moment to recover, as if they were trying to sort out in their heads what they'd just heard before gaining the ability to applaud. I know it happened to me; this was some powerful art. I don't think I can see myself sitting around listening to the material like I'd listen to mainstream music, but that takes nothing away from the performance itself. This isn't the Foo Fighters, after all, this is Laurie Anderson.

Judging from this concert, Homeland is some of the most political material in Anderson's long career. She's very clear in what her purpose is here; she mourning the death of democracy and the madness of America in the "post-911" world. In what was the most moving moment of the performance, Anderson invokes imagery from old Westerns; someone runs into a saloon and shouts, "There's trouble at the mine!" and everyone stops what they're doing to run out and lend help. Why, she wonders, isn't that happening now when the "trouble at the mine" is the dying of freedom? In an emotive male voice sounding nearly on the verge of tears, she implores over and over again, "There's trouble at the mine!" Nobody leaves, of course, and why should we? We have already been told in the opening piece, "Only an expert can see the problem, and only an expert can deal with the problem." She brings this dilemma to light in every thing from the Iraq War to global climate change to the struggle of everyday Americans to barely scrape by ("When you're 1.3 weeks away from homelessness... one paycheck away from homelessness... that... is... a problem.")

Anderson's Homeland tour will continue through mid-June. Check the tour schedule and if you're within 100 miles and go! This is intense stuff. If you're someone who regularly reads this blog, there's a good chance you'll be moved by Anderson's performance of this material — even if you've never heard any of her music before or never heard of Laurie Anderson before. Take the risk. It's worth it.

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