Review and photographs by Tim Livingston
Singer/songwriter/storyteller/DIY-artist/activist Michelle Shocked brought the “Roccupy!!” leg of her five-year “Roadworks” tour to Club Helsinki in Hudson last Saturday night in what proved to be part concert, part rally. The extensive “Roadworks” tour is an ongoing traveling show which finds the troubadour not only exploring her past catalog, but also working out new songs, playing many of them for the first time on any given night.
Dressed in skinny black jeans, military cap, an Occupy scarf around her neck and her trademark black Converse sneakers, the genuine, friendly and folksy Michelle is a master at involving the audience in her show, and she wasted no time in bringing them onboard. Even during the sound check, she serenaded one of two birthday parties in the crowd with a song.
When she returned to the stage for her actual show, she spelled out how the evening was about to go… some old songs, some never-before-heard songs, a short, five-minute break, followed by an informative talk on the Occupy movement (in which she is deeply involved) and then some more old songs, perhaps taking a few requests. “In case you have never seen me before, I talk a lot…” she warned the crowd, although most seemed familiar with her casual approach.
Where most performers who ask for audience involvement on stage tend to wait until the end of the night, Shocked, following in the folk tradition, kicked it right off with a pair of sing-a-longs. First she brought a random audience member up to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (a women sitting up front, who actually had a really good voice) backed by Shocked on acoustic guitar and her lone accompaniment for the evening, a percussionist keeping time on a very small drum kit. Next up, Shocked took on the loud, boisterous birthday revelers by bringing both parties up on stage to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Woody Guthrie by singing the folk landmark “This Land Is Your Land” – with mixed results. It was a smart move, though, giving the party their moment to shine and make some noise, perhaps quieting them down for the rest of the night. Well, almost…
After the chaotic, but fun “folkaroke” wrapped up, she jumped into her own set. Leaving no question as to whether or not she would play the big hit, right off the bat, she opened with her signature song “Anchorage.” This letter-from-a-friend narrative is one of those brilliant songs that just captures a feeling, a longing for home and days gone by. And between lines she gave us some brief updates on the central characters (“they now live in Billings, Montana. Kevin graduated years ago…”). She then kept to her breakthrough album 1988’s Short Sharp Shocked by launching into the touching “Memories of East Texas.” Much like the Texas back roads she sang about, Shocked’s songs wind and stray off course. Sometimes taking the scenic route, exploring the back roads, telling stories, taking in the sights and the sounds, but then, through a chord change or a vocal refrain, finding their way back on course and taking it home. It sometimes takes longer to end the journey, but it seems so much more rewarding than simply taking the beaten path. That is how it was throughout the evening, as she told the story behind each song, but still captivaed the audience the whole way.
In introducing the song “Graffiti Limbo,” she took the story she wrote years ago about a persecuted graffiti artist and transformed it into a tale about today’s Wiki leaks controversy, in the process calling out the current administration for running for office under the guise of transparency in government. Michelle told the crowd right up front, “You won’t agree with everything I have to say tonight…” For her, it is not political in terms of favoring one party or another, and in the end she’s is not so much political, but rather a social activist, imploring people to get involved and to stand up to both parties of power. Looking to simply “change the conversation in this country,” she took the side of the 99% and backed up her sloganeering with radical, social street-action, now mostly through the Occupy Movement (“…we have not fizzled out, we just went underground”).
Looking for a quick audience request, many songs were shouted out, but the stellar “Come A Long Way” was settled upon, supported by the crowd singing along with the choruses, a “back-up” she used throughout the night to help her beef up the songs with their voices or symphonies of whistling (“when you sing with me I hear angels…”).
She spoke briefly of love, (“I don’t usually do love, I do cities..”), a bad marriage she was in and the great relationship she is now in. At this point in the show, Michelle introduced a selection of as-yet-unrecorded songs, a collaboration with her partner and “love of her life” fine artist David Willardson (“I’m now 50 years old and still no ring?”).
The collection of works, titled “Indelible Women,” is one in which David paints a portrait of a famous female pop culture icon and Michelle later brings the image to life with her poetry through a song written about each painting. With large silk screens of the original paintings hung on stage behind her, she approached each one on an instrument she is still learning, the piano. This tour she shared new songs about Billie Holiday (“Take Your TIme”), Frida Kahlo (“Algun Dia”) and Marilyn Monroe (“I Will Be Loved”). The one about herself (“This is Me”) has been painted, but not yet written. She did reveal that the painting of Marilyn, was actually David’s way of coping with a sad, personal loss of his own. Michelle’s voice went from her lush soft Texas drawl to a booming soulful roar in bringing to light these new tunes. Her voice and guitar playing were stellar throughout the night. Her piano playing admittedly was still a work in progress, but she held her own on the ivories with her sparkling vocals taking center stage and covering any “clams” there may have been on the keys.
After a very short break Ms. Shocked reconvened “class” with a discussion about “Occupy” and her work within the movement. The stage now was littered with signs and slogans of the cause, the main focus being fraudulent foreclosures. She used the example of a young women named Blanca Cardenas, who had recently been deported under strange circumstances following an arrest while trying to save her illegally foreclosed home. Michelle sang a song she wrote about Blanca and also told the story of Hawaiian guitarist Makana, who took a stand by going off-script at an APEC summit dinner he was invited to play, by performing his Occupy protest anthem “We Are the Many” to President Obama and the world’s elite.
She led the audience in a “Wizard of Oz”-inspired chant of protest and defiance, and then petitioned the audience to stand up and speak about their own experiences. One man spoke about a local social action group helping people in need facing foreclosure and led Michelle and the crowd in his own chant of “Fight Back!” That said, Michelle slammed into the the still very poignant “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” off of her sophomore album. This may have been the highlight of the night as the dark brooding song felt so spot on in today’s social/political climate.
She continued the night with a few more songs, one honoring an earlier request for one of the “Roadworks” songs she spotlighted on last year’s tour, and a rendition of a crowd favorite “When I Grow Up.” For this she called up a road associate Justin to help her sing it. However, one of the birthday participants Jackson, who thought she was speaking to him, strolled up on stage. Taking it all in stride, Michelle said, “OK, this works… now let’s get the drunkest person from the other birthday party up here, too. That would be you, Cindy” (the birthday girl). Now mind you this party was a bit disruptive at certain times during the performance, but Michelle still included them once again in the proceedings. With the guys on background vocals and Cindy sharing lead vocals with Michelle, the impromptu group romped through the Short Sharp Shocked lead-off track with gusto, wrapping it all up with another nod to the “Wizard of Oz.” “Are we ruining a good song?” Michelle asked. “Well, at least we are having fun doing it!” There was a point where I thought Cindy was going to knock over a mic stand and some glasses on the piano, if not fall over herself, but all’s well that ends well..
After the show, Michelle stood by the merch table and talked endlessly to all who wanted a word with her, a CD signed or a photo taken. She answered their questions about her music, but also often, expertly, brought the conversation to Occupy and what one can do to be involved.
She promised to be back next year with “Roadworks 2013,” with more stories to be told and roads to be traveled. I think everyone here on this night would welcome the return trip.