Those Summer Nights
Melissa Etheridge’s earnest Awakening
By Suzi Steffen
For many minutes, as I walked to work with the sounds of Melissa Etheridge’s 2007 Awakening ringing in my ears, I tried out comparisons. Melissa is the lesbian Bryan Adams! Melissa is the lesbian Aerosmith! Melissa is the lesbian Pat Benatar! Journey! Heart! Crosby, Stills and … oops, that’s too obvious.
Screw it. Can’t figure out the right rock comparison, but I can say that listening to Awakening reminds me that Melissa and I come from the same area, where weather-worn, bug-splattered cars blare wailing guitars and power ballads as they motor humidity-drenched folks in American flag shirts and bandannas to Sandstone Amphitheatre in Bonner Springs, Kansas, where fireflies light up the fields beyond the stage and the fluorescent sprawl of strip malls competes with fields of corn and wheat.
In her newest music, I still hear the sound of people leaning into each other at the end of a two-hour concert, knowing they have a hour-long drive ahead of them but wanting to hold on to that last bit of concert magic before packing out. OK, true, at Etheridge concerts there might not be quite as many American flags, and at least half of the couples will be My People (I hail ya! Making out to Melissa was such a rite of passage before Ani came along!), but seriously. The classic rock sound lives on in Awakening.
Part of that sound requires a certain lack of irony. I mean, 1993’s Yes, I Am stands as pretty much the best non-ironic rock album ever despite the slight wordplay of the title. But it’s been a while since I listened to Etheridge. So at first, I thought the chorus for the song “California” was a bit of self-mocking for all of us who left the Midwest and ended up on this coast: “I will find my love / I will seek my peace / I am almost free / California, rescue me.” You know? California (or Oregon) ain’t gonna rescue us! Except she’s serious because in Etheridge’s case, it kind of did.
There’s one poppy, sweet-hooked song on Awakening, a cute little tune called “Message to Myself,” that includes backing vocalists singing, “Sha la la la” but that also does a fine — if clichéd — job telling other queer folks, “Truth is what you get when truth is what you speak.”
What with coming out, her partnerships, the kids and her bout with breast cancer, Etheridge long ago became tabloid fodder, but she never lost her social conscience. Who could stay dry-eyed during “Scarecrow,” her song for Matthew Shepard? And of course, she wrote (and won an Oscar for) “I Need to Wake Up” for An Inconvenient Truth. Bryan Adams wouldn’t ever go there. That’s the joy of Melissa, who mixes sappy love ballads, angsty breakup rockers and bluntly wielded lyrics (check out “God Is in the People”), only to emerge with magically meaningful moments. Take your lighters to the Cuthbert; for Melissa Etheridge, cell phone lights just won’t cut it.
Melissa Etheridge. 8 pm Friday, Aug. 22. Cuthbert Amphitheatre. $35, $65 reserved.