12 May 2019

Melissa Etheridge's Medicine Show

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 12 May 2019

American singer Melissa Etheridge has politics on her mind and in her songs on her latest album The Medicine Show. William Dart takes a listen.

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Photo: Concord Records

Melissa Etheridge, lamenting the savage murder of the young Matthew Shepard in the song 'Scarecrow', still has the power to unsettle almost twenty years after the song’s release.

'Scarecrow' lays out a stark tragedy, accentuated by the threatening swirl of sound that carries the song through its five or so minutes. The lyrics boldly meld the matter of fact with the poeticized, culminating in the scarecrow image of the title, evoking the brutalized body of a young gay man, strung up on a fence to die.

Musically, for a protest song, there’s not much that’s folky going on here and I suspect that 'Scarecrow' benefits from having more than just the strum of acoustic guitar behind it. This is rock’n’roll.

The last two minutes of the song are an extended riff on the potential healing power of love, after the scarecrow, crying and dying, has tried to rise above it all in the name of love.

Some decades before this the Beatles assured that all we needed was love and now, 19 years into a new millennium, it’s a want that still waits to be satisfied. 

Matthew Shepard may have been murdered 20 years ago but such persecutions still persist. Few minorities, it seems, are safe and, just six weeks ago, the Christchurch Muslim community fell victim to a particularly heinous hate crime.

Melissa Etheridge is one of the most accomplished women songwriters in contemporary rock. Over the last few years, albums like 4th Street Feeling and This is M.E. showed her pursuing musical rather than political ambitions. But her latest, her first since Donald Trump took over the White House, shows that vigilance is still called for.

The issues of today permeate the eleven songs. Its title The Medicine Show is a give-away. It's a title that, in Etheridge’s own words, puts various issues straight up, front and centre – from health and wellness to marijuana legislation and the new paradigm, however you want to talk about it or understand it.

We’re not afraid of this anymore, she adds. We’ve come a long way

The singer’s on-stage charisma comes out from the first track which gives the album its title. In fact, it even sounds a little as if we’re in a stadium, with Victor Indrizzo’s cavernous drums stirring up expectations.

If this were a folk band, I’d be tempted to call the number a calling-on song. A statement of what we’re in for delivered by a woman who’s skilled in zooming from talk of Mata Hari and unicorns to hardcore North Dakota rock’n’roll – and you’ll certainly hear that when John Shanks’s lead guitar soars over proceedings.

Melissa Etheridge is not afraid to put aside the electric for acoustic and both she and Shanks play acoustic guitar in the song 'Here comes the Pain'.

There’s been much talk of America’s opioid crisis of late, a subject that’s too often just an easy political ploy. Etheridge, herself a cancer survivor, knows this territory on a personal level, and catches the perilous descent of dependency, not afraid to take the song into a minor blitzkrieg when pain erupts.

Not all of the songs of Melissa Etheridge’s new album are so specific in their targets.

And perhaps some listeners might find a number like 'This Human Chain' too generic, with all its talk of brothers and sisters coming together. Out of context it could well seem so but, in context, with its gentle retro groove and shuffle, it’s a punctuation point that throws the more focused protest into relief.

And, with those Barry White violins, electro shooting stars and keyboard washes, it might even have you imagining mirror balls.

I spent a few pleasant days this last summer catching up with Melissa Etheridge’s 2001 autobiography, titled The Truth Is . . . My Life in Love and Music.

It’s a straight-from-the-shoulder saga. Etheridge charts her gradual rise through the ranks from small lounge bars in Kansas City and Long Beach to major label success and the chance to work with such luminaries as Island Records producer Chris Blackwell.

Interestingly we find that her current guitarist John Shanks has been part of her life and music for some decades.

Subtly and very quickly the book shifts from discussing music to love, and her painstaking search for a partner which ended when she met Julie Cypher, ex-wife of actor Lou Diamond Philips. (Etheridge and Cypher later separated).

Lyrics throughout the book signpost the life journey and bring about some revealing discussion of songwriting.

The song 'Scarecrow' receives some pages of backgrounding, in which Etheridge gives her view on what she describes as our archaic persecution of sexuality.

Melissa Etheridge hasn’t spoken much about the songs on the new Medicine Show album, and, for me, there are still a few question marks. Is the song 'Woman Like You' a generalized observation of the slowly improving situation of women in our society, or is there something more personal going on here?

In the wake of the recent horrors endured by Christchurch, Sri Lanka and, just a few weeks ago, San Diego, it’s difficult not to see Etheridge’s final song as the most moving one of the album.

'Last Hello' was inspired by the slaughter of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, the year that saw the writing of the album’s songs.

It’s written in broadish strokes apart from one sliver of a line where Etheridge allows her voice to make its statement all by itself.

And somehow, I’m imagining that it could be one of the most effective moments during her current concert tour. 

Earlier this year there was a bit of bonus for Melissa Etheridge followers.

Released to iTunes and Spotify with a number of other live-to-air performances taken from Jan Douwe Kroeske's 2 Meter Sessions was a soul-baring rendition of her 1988 song 'Bring Me Some Water'.

Caught in the programme's Amsterdam studios in that same year, it's very, very different from the original version with her band that you can hear on her first album.

The song is one of her best, and she knows it, giving out its lyrics in her autobiography and explaining its rages and passion as part of the frustrations experienced with an early relationship.  It’s compellingly bluesy, turning from tenderness to fury on the pivot of a chord. And it so personal in a way that that first studio performance somehow deflects.

How, one wonders, might the songs from Etheridge’s new Medicine Show album come across, if she gave the band a smoko, picked up her guitar and sang to us, soul to soul?

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'Scarecrow' (Etheridge) – Melissa Etheridge
Breakdown
(Island)

'The Medicine Show' (Etheridge) – Melissa Etheridge
The Medicine Show
(Concord)

'Here Comes the Pain' (Etheridge) – Melissa Etheridge
The Medicine Show
(Concord)

'This Human Chain' (Etheridge) – Melissa Etheridge
The Medicine Show
(Concord)

'Woman Like You' (Etheridge) – Melissa Etheridge
The Medicine Show
(Concord)

'Last Hello' (Etheridge) – Melissa Etheridge
The Medicine Show
(Concord)

'Bring Me Some Water' (Etheridge) – Melissa Etheridge
Jan Douwe Kroeske presents: 2 Meter Sessions Vol 1
(2 Meter Sessies)

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