Michelle Shocked at Mahaiwe Theatre
by Seth Rogovoy
GREAT BARRINGTON – Michelle Shocked put her trust and her heart in the hands of her fans on Tuesday night at the Mahaiwe Theatre, where a solo concert was as much of an encounter session as it was a performance. And perhaps sensing Shocked’s neediness and insecurity, her fans responded with an outpouring of emotional support for the mercurial singer-songwriter, reassuring her with profuse applause and vocal support that they were with her every step of the way throughout her two-hour program.
Shocked has always been a volatile artist, constantly reinventing herself and her sound. Her appearance alone on the Mahaiwe stage was her latest surprise. As she explained, she woke up that morning in New Jersey feeling like she needed to get out from behind the band with which she has been touring. She left a note for them telling them not to follow, and she fled to Great Barrington alone with a couple of guitars and a pair of house slippers, not even shoes.
And instead of a concert full of her new “gospel birdsong” music, Shocked delivered a show full of her fan’s most-requested favorites. Dedicating her show at the outset to “women feeling overstressed,” Shocked sang stark, bluesy versions of her songs, most of which in one way or another reversed the testosterone-laden blues tradition and instead dealt with women’s plight at the hands of rotten men.
She kicked off her set with “When I Grow Up (I Want to Be an Old Woman),” an acoustic blues-boogie featuring her huge blues voice with a hint of vibrato and a Texas twang. “Memories of East Texas” was about what the title says, including learning to drive and losing one’s innocence along the way.
She dispensed with the song that made her famous, the epistolary “Anchorage,” early on. The song is still one of her best, its unique narrative strategy setting it apart from the typical folk song and its imagery, drawing on Texas, Alaska, New York City and the boulevard of broken dreams, still effective. And surprisingly, the question at the center of the song, “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk-rocker?” is still relevant going on 15 years after she wrote the song.
Shocked strapped on her electric guitar for several numbers, including “Graffiti Limbo,” her tribute to Michael Stewart, the New York City graffiti artist slain while in police custody in 1985. She also demonstrated her devotion to spontaneity by plucking WKZE music director Hal Lefferts out of the crowd and inviting him up to play guitar with her on one number, a minor-key blues.
“5 A.M. in Amsterdam” was a highlight of the show, featuring some rich, resonant fingerpicking on the acoustic guitar and ringing harmonics that echoed the tick-tock of the clock she was singing about.
At the end of the show, Shocked made clearer reference to the depths of her spiritual and existential anguish in both word and song, on new numbers like “The More I Forgive, The More I Forget,” and “Pico-esque,” one of several tunes about living the life of alienation in Los Angeles that put her in line with the Jackson Browne school of self-indulgent, Southern California singer-songwriters.
In the end, however, Shocked made tangible the hidden element that ran through much of the evening with several gospel numbers, including “If Not Here, Then Where,” a quiet, folky number she wrote with Norman Blake, and an a capella version of “Can’t Take My Joy,” for which the audience served as gospel choir.
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