Watching Melissa Etheridge on Tuesday evening at the Birchmere, one becomes aware of her phenomenal level of talent. Her husky vocals, a Great Plains-inflected Janis Joplin, have lost nothing, and they are especially impressive in a live performance. Melissa is a triple threat, however: She’s a monster guitar who plays blazing solos, and she writes fantastic songs.
This show benefitted from perfect sound at The Birchmere. Often, when the volume goes up, clarity suffers. This was not the case here. Not only could I hear all the tones of the instruments and all the lyrics, I could clearly make out the percussive sound of Melissa’s guitar strings. This was excellent work.
Melissa opened the show with “It’s Christmastime,” from her 2008 Christmas album, A New Thought for Christmas. After finishing the song, she said “I know a part of your emotional world is connected to my music, and I appreciate that.” She changed guitars (which she would do between each song) and played “No Souvenirs” from her second album, 1989’s Brave and Crazy.
“It’s good to be here again. We had a good time last night,” Melissa said, as she also performed at The Birchmere on Monday evening. She added, “Sometimes we get a little crazy at Christmastime and things get just a little bit sadder, or we don’t break up with them until after Christmas,” describing January as a month of breakups. Melissa and the band played “Blue Christmas,” a song about loneliness during the holiday.
Stream A New Thought for Christmas by Melissa Etheridge on Spotify:
Melissa followed “Blue Christmas” with the megahit “I Want to Come Over,” from the 1995 album Your Little Secret. In a breathtaking moment, Melissa impressively held a note, eliciting a round of applause. After finishing the song, Melissa showed off her fancy duds. “Did you notice I’m all lit up?” she asked, turning around as the lights dimmed and her jacket lit up.
When Melissa was approached about doing a Christmas album, she wasn’t enthusiastic about it at first, she confessed. It was just after she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 — “14 years cancer free!” she exclaimed to raucous applause. She asked if she could write her own songs for the Christmas album, and then she became more interested.
Explaining the background of holiday song “Light a Light,” Melissa told the audience that she felt that all the stories told around the holiday season (“It doesn’t matter what story you tell”) have to do with coming together in this dark and cold time of year. “Sometimes,” she said, “we need to be reminded we’re all one family.”
At one point, Melissa’s very cool jacket, which had metal fringe, got caught in her guitar. She extracted herself from her guitar, and her wardrobe man came out with a different jacket. Once she had changed jackets, Melissa launched into “Don’t You Need” from her self-titled debut album (1988). She played a scorching guitar solo, and the crowd responded with enthusiastic applause. Melissa commented that she got carried away, and she appreciated the crowd indulging her. It’s always great to see a musician enjoying herself on stage.
It’s quite a coincidence that in 1988/1989, three female artists from the Midwest — Ms. Etheridge (Kansas), Tracy Chapman (Ohio), and Shawn Colvin (South Dakota) — would produce successful debut records, and all win Grammy Awards over the next few years, leaving an indelible mark on modern music.
Melissa wrote her song “Christmas in America” before the Christmas album project came up. She was on a flight home to Kansas, and she met a soldier who was returning from Iraq. She talked to him about his relationship, and the strain that being away put on it. They stayed in touch, and although that relationship eventually did break up, the soldier is married to someone else now.
Keeping in the poignance of the evening, Melissa commemorated the passing of Harvey Milk (who died on Nov. 20, 40 years ago) with the song “Testify” from her second album — a song she wrote specifically for him. Milk, the first openly gay elected official in America, served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors until he was assassinated. Much of his story is captured in the film Milk, starring Sean Penn and James Franco. Milk was — and continues to be — an icon in the LGBTQ community.
Saying “sometimes you just have to rock,” Melissa blazed into “Chrome Plated Heart.” Growing up in Leavenworth, Kansas, Melissa said, her parents weren’t particularly religious, but her family did go to a Methodist Church, “Church lite.” Melissa enjoyed church music, participating in choir. Her favorite holiday hymn was “O, Holy Night,” but a soprano always got to sing it, she told the audience, whispering the girl’s name under her breath. When she made her Christmas album, Melissa rewrote and rearranged the song to better suit her as “Oh Night Divine.”
Coming toward the home stretch, Melissa started playing the big hits, beginning with “Come to My Window” from 1993’s Yes I Am. At The Birchmere, people started to get up and dance, and they wouldn’t stop until the end of the show. Melissa followed with “Bring Me Some Water,” her biggest hit from debut album, then she took a panoramic selfie video. After talking up a cruise where she is performing in the spring, she played “I’m the Only One” leading directly to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to finish her set.
For her encore, Melissa played “Like the Way I Do,” the second single from her debut album. During the song, she took off her guitar, grabbed drumsticks, and performed a duet with the drummer. She gave the drumsticks to fans in the audience, grabbed her guitar, and picked right back up.
I’m not a big fan of holiday shows, but I really enjoyed this one. Melissa is such a great talent, and so much of the material is so good, that this show is worth going to, even if you’re not crazy about Christmas music.
Parklife DC photographer Paivi Salonen, who adores Christmas music, took some photos of Melissa Etheridge on Nov. 27, 2018, at The Birchmere. Here are those pix, copyright and courtesy of Paivi.