Melissa Etheridge
with Shannon Curfman,
Fox Theater, Boulder, CO
(20 August 1999)

So what were you doing when you were 14? Did you play guitar? Were you still learning chords or fine-tuning your DADGAD skills? Surely you weren't opening for a major rock 'n' roll artist in front of a sold-out, standing-room-only audience, half full of the rock star's fans and half full of radio programmers -- you know, the ones you hoped would play your soon to-be-released debut album.

Fourteen-year-old Shannon Curfman did just that when she opened for Melissa Etheridge as part of the Gavin/AAA radio summit. Curfman is an opener now, but chances are good that she will steal the show soon.

Curfman's on-stage presence, blues-rock guitar playing and full, resonant voice belied her years. By sight, I would have pegged her as 19. By skill, I'd think her much older. She plays Hendrix-style guitar (no, she's not as good as Hendrix, but give her time); she is a woman who can rock. With her sunglasses on top of her head and her left foot working the pedal, she gradually moved as far downstage as possible. Her band members were featured on all songs also; her single, "True Friends," for instance, started off with keyboards and gradually led to a guitar solo.

By the time she came to a cover of The Band's "The Weight," I quit grasping for whose voices she reminded me of and just focused on her voice instead -- listening as it swayed from raspy and deep in the throat to soft and curving. When Curfman closed her 35-minute set with "Playing With Fire," she was smiling while concentrating on left-handed finger work on her guitar. She'd impressed the audience and well prepared us for Melissa Etheridge.

Dressed in black and sporting a new barely shoulder-length haircut, Etheridge nonchalantly walked onstage and ambled to her center stage microphone after her band was in position. As she jumped into "If I Only Wanted To," a mix of industry representatives and local fans (a couple of hundred tickets were sold to the locals for the industry shows at the 650-person capacity Fox; this show, as could be expected, sold out rapidly) reacted with enthusiasm that soaked into Etheridge. She said it "reminds me of the first time I played Boulder," back in 1988. She intimated that Boulder was her first real rock 'n' roll crowd, and while proclaiming that this night didn't feel like an industry show, launched into "I Want to Come Over."

Etheridge has admirable audience rapport. She seems to talk and sing to each person, using her face and hands as she communicates. She'll come to a false stop in a song to start to talk to the audience, then she'll suddenly resume the music. She truly seems to love touring. After three years off, she chatted about her upcoming album, Breakdown, and how "it was time to go back to work." She firmly insisted that having children hasn't changed her music -- laughs that it's still intense and dark, "so you can see the light at the end." (She did, however, concede that children made her sleepier.) She debuted several new songs, "Enough of Me," "Angels Will Fall" (also the album's first single), and "Truth of the Heart," the latter song influenced by her children. She wondered what she would tell them when they asked her "what is up with this whole crazy world," and this song was the result.

Those three years off have not hurt Etheridge's voice, guitar playing, songwriting, or stage presence. She said she was soaking it all in until she started the Breakdown tour in two months. The audience clearly was soaking it in also. At one point, she encouraged a female fan to keep her shirt on, took a sip from a Salty Dog given by a fan ("I haven't had a Salty Dog since I was 22"), and apologized that she'd never learned "Free Bird." And while the crowd indeed applauded the new songs, "Come to My Window," laughingly described as a "song I had to play 5,000 times," was a definite crowd pleaser. The audience sang, swayed and danced as best as possible in the crowded theater.

Etheridge pointed to her water bottle as a clue to her next song, "Bring Me Some Water," which spotlighted a lengthy and dramatic opening. She half-talked/sang the introduction, and the first verse was rather subdued, but she was rocking by the first chorus, holding her guitar out to the side as she knelt down at the stage's edge. She used the song to showcase her long-time band: Mark Browne on bass, John Shanks (with a new hat this tour) on guitar, Kenny Aronoff on drums, and the relatively new band member, Patrick Warren, on keyboards. By the song's end, Etheridge had seduced her audience thoroughly and as she wound her way to her encore, "Like the Way I Do," she actually exited the stage. Astounding the unprepared security guards, she bounded down the stage right stairs, guitar in hand, and rushed into the thrilled crowd to jam -- a feat rarely attempted by most women in rock 'n' roll.

Both Curfman and Etheridge demonstrated a joy of performance not always seen. Etheridge particularly seemed to relish playing in such a small venue (her most recent visits to the area have been to arenas) and the intimacy with her audience. I don't know how many programming directors decided to add Curfman's and Etheridge's singles to their play lists based solely on this concert, but I do know that their audience in general seemed to be enchanted by both women.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

Buy Shannon Curfman's debut album, Loud Guitars Big Suspicions, at CDNow.

And check out the Melissa Etheridge discography, too!