The lobby of the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ, is buzzing with activity this Friday, November 30, 2018 evening as rock music fans ready themselves for a special Holiday Show by singer/songwriter Melissa Etheridge!
Melissa Etheridge was born in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1961. Her father was a high school teacher and athletic director and her mother was a computer consultant. Melissa’s interest in music began early. She began playing guitar at the age of eight and performed in a variety of country music groups throughout her teenage years.
While attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Etheridge played the local club circuit before heading out to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. There, she was discovered by Island Records. After her first album was dismissed by the record company as being too polished, she completed a stripped-down replacement album, Melissa Etheridge, in just four days. Released in 1988, the recording went on to become an underground hit and the album’s single, “Bring Me Some Water,” was nominated for a Grammy.
After contributing background vocals to Don Henley’s album, The End of the Innocence, Etheridge released her second recording in 1989, Brave and Crazy, which garnered her a second Grammy nomination. Her third album, Never Enough, helped to deliver Etheridge her first Grammy win for Best Rock Vocal Performance. In 1993, she achieved mainstream success with the release of Yes I Am, a recording which spent over two and a half years on the Billboard charts and was certified Platinum six times!
While still maintaining a successful recording and concert career, Etheridge went on to make her Broadway debut in 2011 replacing Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong in the role of St. Jimmy in American Idiot. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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More recently, in 2014, Etheridge released her album, This is M.E., which features cover art in the form of a mosaic which includes photos submitted by fans. Said Etheridge about the unique cover, “My fans are such a huge part of ME, and I wouldn’t be ME without YOU.” Her latest recording is Memphis Rock and Soul, a 2016 effort in which she honors the classic Memphis sound created by Stax Records.
As we wait out in the cozy State Theatre lobby for the show to begin, we chat with several Melissa Etheridge fans, including Janice and Linda from Mine Hill.
States Janice, “We’ve seen Melissa Etheridge more than 50 times, and every time is unique! If you’re close enough to see the expression on her face, it helps to tell the story of whatever song she is singing.”
“I recently bought my sister a ticket to see one of her concerts and she loved it!” continues Janice. “She never realized how talented Melissa is. She’s got energy and she’s smart, spiritual, intelligent, and well spoken — not to mention a great musician on both guitar and drums.”
Janice’s friend, Linda, agrees adding, “Melissa Etheridge is an amazing talent; she can make the guitar talk! She’s an incredible writer, and every one of her songs is based on something that happened to her — whether she is miserable or happy, you can relate to her music.”
Next, we chat with Patty from Allentown who acknowledges, “This is my first time seeing Melissa Etheridge live and I’m so excited — especially because my husband came with me to see her tonight! I’ve been a fan of Melissa’s since I was in my 20s. I like everything about her — her voice, her message. And the fact that she’s a cancer survivor, it’s so great that she’s still writing and performing — she definitely has more work to do.”
Lastly, we chat with Denise from Metuchen who says, “I first saw Melissa Etheridge back in the Spring of 1990 after her first album came out. It was in Lexington, Kentucky in a tiny bar, and I’ve been dreaming of seeing her again ever since. I know the energy will be the same here tonight — only amplified; there’s no way her fans are going to be able to sit down the whole time!”
Inside the historic State Theatre auditorium, the stage is set with a Hammond organ, a pedal steel guitar, a drum set, several 6- and 12-string guitars, a bass, and a microphone positioned in the center of the stage in front of a backdrop featuring three large peace signs.
Christmas music plays over the loudspeakers setting the mood for the evening. Lights dim and the crowd screams as a drum roll begins and Melissa Etheridge enters strumming her silver guitar dressed in a stunning silver jacket. Audience members leap to their feet as she takes the mic and opens her show with a rockin’ rendition of “It’s Christmas Time.”
Backed by a band featuring David Santos on bass, Eric Gardner on drums, and Max Hart on organ, keyboards, pedal steel, and guitar, Etheridge’s bourbon-tinged lead vocal sounds crystal clear as her talented musicians boogie behind her.
Following huge applause, Etheridge exclaims, “It’s good to see you New Jersey!” as lights flash.
Continuing, “New Jersey — I was just here last year. Tonight’s gonna be a little bit of music of the season — and rock and roll,” Melissa additionally declares, “We got a little story to tell!”
As lights stream in rays of color behind her, Etheridge launches into a song from Yes, I Am — “If I Only Wanted To.”
As her band rhythmically accompanies her soulful vocal, Melissa sings, “If I wanted to, I could turn matches to gold/Smoke, drink, swear, and I would never grow old/I wouldn’t have to be in love with you/If only I wanted to.”
Audience members cheer before Etheridge announces, “The holidays can break your heart if your heart is breaking.” At this point, she performs a medley of two songs. First, is her rendition Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” which features Max Hart on pedal steel guitar. Audience members sway to the beat as Etheridge plays a bluesy guitar solo, her voice crying as she passionately sings the blues while deftly accompanied by Eric Gardner’s solid drumming.
Without skipping a beat, she and the band segue into her 1996 tune, “I Want to Come Over.” With the atmosphere more like a party than a concert, the audience joins her in singing, “I want to come over/It’s a need I can’t explain/To see you again/I want to come over,” as her vocal is accompanied by pedal steel and Etheridge’s shimmery-sounding blue 12-string guitar.
Exclaiming, “Nobody likes rock and roll like you do, New Jersey!” Etheridge continues, “You keep it alive and pass it on to your children.”
The audience cheers when she proclaims, “I’m 14 years cancer free!” before explaining that her next song is about “my thoughts of how we all define our spirits.”
Max Hart plays electric piano with his right hand and Hammond organ with his left as he complements Etheridge’s guitar playing and heartfelt vocal on “Light the Light,” an original holiday song. As Melissa poignantly sings, “Heaven is inside/It’s all around/Not just above/Choose only love,” fans light their cellphones to illuminate this season of change.
Announcing, “I just love playing the guitar, so I’m going to play a guitar song!” a crowd dances near the stage as Etheridge performs “Don’t You Need,” a rock ballad from her self-titled debut album. On this number featuring shifting rhythms, Etheridge jams on her guitar, making it sing — the music building as she solos her way through the song straight into her audience members’ hearts.
Revealing, “I wrote this song for the people in the service,” Etheridge performs another holiday number, “Christmas in America.” On this original folk-rocker, she soulfully pleads with Santa, “Hey mister, send my baby home/This December I don’t want to be all alone.”
Following avid applause, Etheridge announces, “First, you bought this album on cassette. Then, you bought it on CD,” before joking, “Altogether, I’ve sold six million records to about 2,000 people!”
Here, she launches into the title track from Yes, I Am. On this bluesy number, she sings with soul, “I am your passion, your promise, your end/Yes I am” as Max Hart’s swirling organ sound contrasts with the rhythmic percussive strumming of her guitar before David Santos is featured on a thoughtful bass solo.
As lights illuminate the trio of peace signs behind her, Etheridge performs a poignant cover version of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” — her voice soaring as she segues into a coda of Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Audience members stand, holding two-fingered peace signs high and swaying to the music together.
On another song from her debut album, “Chrome Plated Heart,” Etheridge croons, “I got a chrome-plated heart/I got wings on these fingers trying to tear it apart.” With its irresistible funky bass and guitar part, audience members stand and dance as a unified moving mass of humanity to the wah-wah sound of Etheridge’s modal guitar solo which she plays with her head back, drinking in the sound.
After revealing, “‘O Holy Night’ is my favorite Christmas song,” Etheridge explains, “My voice is unique so, as a kid, I was asked to sit in the back of the church choir.” Lamenting, “They always gave this song to the sopranos,” Etheridge confesses, “I needed to change it a little bit to fit my life.”
Here, she performs her bluesy reworking of “O Holy Night” entitled “O Night Divine.” Featuring Eric Gardner’s prominent drumbeat and David Santos playing a straight eighth-note pattern on his bass, Etheridge impresses with her performance of this rock power ballad which features the chord progression from “O Holy Night” paired with updated lyrics. Cheering as Melissa holds out the phrase, “O night divine,” she proves that her unique voice belongs front and center on this audience favorite.
As soon as members of the crowd recognize the guitar strumming intro to Etheridge’s 1993 Top 40 hit, “Come to My Window,” they rise to their feet. After stating, “Hey, New Jersey, sing it with me,” the crowd joyfully sings along with Melissa on the song’s famous “Come to my window/Crawl inside, wait by the light of the moon” lyric as Melissa urges them along.
The crowd continues to scream and clap when they hear the intro to her 1988 debut single, “Bring Me Some Water.” With its percussive rhythm, audience members sing along on the “Somebody bring me some water/Can’t you see I’m burning alive” chorus, while lights flash. Audience members dance as Etheridge plays a rhythmic guitar solo — sliding her hand up and down the neck of the guitar as she plays — slowing the song down to half time before bringing it back to its original tempo.
To great applause, Etheridge introduces the members of her band before announcing, “It’s time to take a selfie — we’re having a good old time!” Fans wave and mug for a camera on a selfie stick which a stagehand brings out for her. Afterwards, Etheridge sincerely thanks the audience “for supporting live music,” and also reminds them to “Be strong. Choose love.”
At this point, she performs another audience pleaser — her 1993 Top 10 single, “I’m the Only One.” Opening with it’s bluesy guitar intro, the crowd passionately sings along on this anguished love song’s famous, “But I’m the only one/Who’ll walk across the fire for you” lyric. Following bass, organ, and guitar solos, Etheridge and company segue into a rollicking version of Bruce Springsteen’s holiday staple, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”
While audience members stand, hoot, and holler, Etheridge and her band members take a bow together as she exclaims, “New Jersey, I love you!”
Continuing to cheer, stamp, and clap for her to return, the audience hears a strum of her guitar before Melissa walks back on stage, at which point confetti shoots out, raining down on her!
On this highlight number of the evening — another song from her debut album, the funky rocker, “Like the Way I Do” — the audience enthusiastically sings and dances along. Entrancing the audience with her dynamic guitar playing, Melissa interacts with fans as she plays, her sheer musical talent shining through!
Putting down her guitar, she strolls to the back of the stage to play a drum duet with Eric Gardner where lights strobe behind her and add to the dramatic effect. After kissing Gardner on the head, Etheridge gives her drum sticks away to fans before grabbing her guitar and continuing the serenade!
Exclaiming, “All right, New Jersey — give it up!” she has the audience echo-sing melodic phrases back to her before she finishes the show playing her guitar side-by-side with Max Hart on electric guitar and David Santos on bass to audience whistles and cheers!
As audience members make their way back into the State Theatre lobby, we chat with several in tonight’s crowd who share their experiences with us.
Comments Tom from Parland, “This is the fourth time I’ve seen Melissa Etheridge in 16 months. She’s an amazing guitar player and performer,” before noting, “and the State Theatre is a beautiful place to see a concert — the sound here is great!”
Tina from Helmetta agrees, adding, “I thought the sound was great, and I enjoyed hearing the love songs — especially the broken-hearted ones.”
Joyce from East Brunswick remarks, “I’ve been a fan of Melissa Etheridge for 30 years. I love her music and I love her energy!” Recalling, “I first saw her in 1989 at Waterloo Village in the pouring rain,” Joyce exclaims, “She was amazing then, and she’s amazing still!”
Joyce’s friend, Colleen from Stanton, concurs adding, “Joyce and I went to high school together — so Melissa Etheridge’s music is our music!”
Lastly, we catch up with Linda, a fan with whom we spoke before the show. Although she’s seen Etheridge perform dozens of times, when we ask her to share her opinion of tonight’s concert, she simply replies, “It was fabulous” before concluding with a smile, “As usual, she gave it 150%!”
To learn more about Melissa Etheridge, please go to melissaetheridge.com. For information on upcoming performances at New Brunswick’s State Theatre — including Stomp on January 11 and 12, 2019, John Mellencamp on February 23, 2019, and Art Garfunkel on March 15, 2019 — please go to stnj.org.Photos by Love Imagery
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