14 Mar 2012: Garrison's Toronto, Canada
Erika M. Anderson’s tremendous solo debut Past Life Martyred Saints burned into many people’s brains over the course of 2011, including mine. A dark, even harrowing, excursion into the fragile psyche of a twentysomething woman flailing around amid the sketchiness of “the scene”. The record alternates between songs that are alarmingly raw and songs that seem designed to keep us at arm’s length. In sum, it was a record that, like Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville a couple decades before it, felt authentic and true even though it appeared to be a study of a woman who had no idea who she really was. The great trick of the record is that though she comes across as mostly lost, we come away from the album with the feeling that we know her intimately.
But, could she pull off this trick onstage? The short answer is, unfortunately, no.
Things began promisingly enough. Anderson took the stage casually, lip-synching along to a Beyonce song that was booming over the PA, and bopping around playfully. Wearing a truly ugly collared shirt thing that she would soon pull away to reveal a Snoopy tee, she certainly wasn’t putting on any airs. And though she pulled the crowd in during the first few numbers, making light, friendly (if a bit obsequious) comments to the room – “Why are Canadians so fucking beautiful?” – she started to lose her grip over them almost right away. Talking got louder all around me as she tried in vain to build the necessary atmosphere for her difficult material. Perhaps sensing that we were drifting, she began making jokes in between songs, which while lightening the mood (and quieting the gabbers), also broke what was left of the spell. The band pushed through album highlights “The Grey Ship” and “Anteroom”, but seemed curiously listless on an album highlight “Milkman”. (Sample room-confusing joke: “Is it weird that I feel less dorky gasping like a dying animal than dancing onstage?”) But, really, none of this amounts to the real problem.
No, the real problem was simply that, as hard as she tried – and she herself was quite exquisite at centre stage, her voice in fine form and her in-song presence engaging – her band was just not up to her level. The drummer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist never lifted the material beyond what seemed to be a fairly lame apeing of the tracks on the studio album. Like they were reproducing as best they could the album rather than finding new space in the songs in the live setting. The result was what felt like two different shows; when, for a stretch of several tunes around the middle of her 75-minute set, EMA was alone onstage with her guitar, the crowd was silent, rapt, lifted into a pretty dark and pretty powerful place. But, when her bandmates returned to join her, the energy dissipated, and though everything got louder, the illusion of intimacy was laid bare.
By the time she finished her set with the extraordinary “California”, the room had thinned by half. Still, those that remained begged her back onstage for a short encore set (about which she appeared to be genuinely surprised and grateful, which was charming). There can be no doubt that Erika Anderson is a hell of an artist, and a powerful performer. What she needs now is a band that can provide the support she needs to lift herself even higher. That happens and it’ll be the show of the year.