at Jammin' Java,
Vienna, Va. (15 May 2012)
On May 15, the legendary singer-songwriter Melanie, who was in the Washington, DC, area to perform at the ASCAP Gala at the Library of Congress, played a fill-in gig at Jammin' Java, a nice listening club with a magnificent sound system just outside Washington in Vienna, Va. She played a loose, make-it-up-as-you-go-along set that had the audience feeling as though they had dropped by an old friend's house where some picking and singing was going on. Melanie explained the looseness by saying she had lost her set-list, but because she is notorious for not following a set-list anyway -- at one point, she said, "I wish I had a set-list here so I'd have something to ignore" -- that probably wasn't the whole reason.
She opened with "Beautiful People," one of her first hits and best-known songs, and by the time she belted the last chorus, she had the audience so firmly in her grip that she could have carried them home in her guitar case. The rest of the evening was a blend of old and new material, with a whole lot of storytelling and standup comedy. She appeared to appreciate the laughter for her stories as much as the applause for the songs.
Rather than a full band, Melanie and her guitar were accompanied by her son, Beau Jarred, a truly remarkable musician, whose flamenco-based guitar style was breathtaking; his fills and runs were flawless, demonstrating not only an astonishing knowledge of craft and technique, but also a musical sensitivity that had jaws dropping in the audience. Jarred has helped Melanie craft new arrangements to the old songs, so that they do not feel dated at all, but it's on the new material that he really shines. Melanie did a half-dozen songs from her new CD, Ever Since You Never Heard of Me, which demonstrated that her songwriting is as strong as it ever was; the songs are touching, personal and unique, presenting a vision that is centered in strong values but has a toughness to it.
She prefaced "I Tried to Die Young" with a long and hilarious story about a PR woman she worked with who had promised to get her on Oprah and Ellen and all the other big-time shows, but kept sending her to places like Boise, Idaho, to do shows like "Good Morning, Boise." When she finally sat down with the PR woman to discuss the next step in the plan to achieve a higher profile, the woman (and Melanie's impression of her Joan Rivers-like accent was hysterical) told her she was too old. The industry wants young, she said. So Melanie write "I Tried to Die Young," a brilliant song about not being able to follow fads and trends but instead staying true to who you are.
One down side about being open about the fact that you don't have a set-list is that the audience feels free to shout out suggestions and requests. The crowd was asking her for obscure songs off of albums she made 40 years ago; when someone screamed out a request for "Bo Bo's Party," Melanie had to admit she didn't know the song anymore. There were also a lot of requests for new material and she was pleased that people knew her most recent songs and she sang them; you could tell she was more engaged with the new material than with the old -- although she still gave "What Have They Done to My Song, Ma," and "Candles in the Rain" everything she had. "What Have They Done To My Song" became a comic delight as she sang the verse originally done in French in that language and then in German and Korean, inviting the crowd to sing along.
After a little more than two hours, she brought the show to a close with updated takes on several old hits. Then she spent another hour or so signing autographs and posing for pictures with members of the crowd. It astonished me to see kids in their teens and early 20s carrying huge stacks of photographs, vinyl albums and CDs to be signed. I don't know why I was surprised: my own teenaged daughters were there with my wife and me; the night before they'd seen the Red Hot Chili Peppers, this night they saw Melanie, and they loved both shows.
Obviously, then, Melanie is not just playing to the people who have followed her career since the '70s; she's building a new and younger audience. If your picture of Melanie as an artist is the hippie flower child with the quavery voice who sang peace and novelty songs, well, you've got to get caught up. She's made about 40 albums and has developed into one of the best songwriters out there, as well as one of the best performers.
If you've seen her live, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, you owe it to yourself to be there when she comes to a venue near you.
by Michael Scott Cain