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Michelle Shocked

(3 May 2003: The Knitting Factory — Los Angeles)

Okay, the show had been billed as doors at 7:00 p.m., show at 8:00. But I was still, well, shocked to see Michelle Shocked herself already onstage and obviously well into her set when we arrived at 8:45. What, no opening act? No puttering around and stalling backstage waiting for the Saturday Hollywood crowd to drag their asses down to the Knitting Factory? What are weekends in the entertainment capital of the world coming to?


It turns out they’re coming to this: the Knit, like a growing number of clubs around Los Angeles, now has an early show and a late show on weekends, presumably so they can afford to pay for whatever obscene amounts they spend on rent and cabaret licenses. Shocked had to be off the stage at 10:00 p.m. sharp to make way for some dance club. Which seems somehow indecent when you’re talking about one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the past 20 years, but that’s show biz, I guess.


A lot of people would probably accuse me of gross exaggeration to call Shocked one of the greats. After all, she pretty much disappeared after only four albums—three, if you don’t count the glorified demo that was The Texas Campfire Tapes—and she never really left the same kind of mark on popular music as Ani DiFranco or Tori Amos or the Indigo Girls or any of the other eight zillion female artists doing their “I am woman, hear me roar” shtick throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But looking back on Shocked’s catalog from those early years, its breadth and sophistication are astonishing. In five years and no more than about three dozen songs, she covered everything from folk to blues to country to gospel to big band jazz to Memphis soul to Texas swing with an authority and skill far beyond her years (she did all of this before she turned 30).


Looking back, it’s clear that Shocked suffered for this versatility, both commercially (she shared the same fan base with artists like the Indigo Girls and Suzanne Vega until the jazzy, horn-heavy sound of 1989’s Captain Swing scared a lot of them off) and professionally, as her label, Mercury Records, finally got fed up with her shapeshifting ways and refused to let her record a proposed gospel follow-up to her most successful album, 1992’s Arkansas Traveler. That experience effectively yanked Shocked out of the public eye for good; she spent several years in the musical wilderness, selling self-produced copies of her next two albums at concerts while the legal battles with Mercury dragged on, and though she was eventually able to get out from under Mercury and start releasing new material on indie labels and get some distribution, her profile hasn’t risen back to former levels and probably never will.


Which is a shame, because to see Shocked in concert these days, or listen to her latest, last year’s Deep Natural, is to realize that this is an artist who is still at the peak of her powers. The only reason you never hear about Michelle Shocked anymore is that she burned too many bridges and pissed too many people off; her battles with her label, combined with a youthful rep for temperamental live performances that occasionally included storming off the stage in mid-song, have branded her too “difficult” to work with.


To her credit, Shocked doesn’t seem to care about any of this; indeed, I think she probably revels in her outsider status. It allows her to do goofy stuff that the mainstream music industry would never abide, like put out Deep Natural with a companion CD called Dub Natural featuring dub-style instrumental versions of the main disc’s tracks. And on this tour, called the “Michelle Shocked & Odd Tour”, she was touring with no opening act (hence her being onstage when we arrived), but instead with a pair of sketch comedians named Peter Bergman and Maryedith Burrell, who came out between songs to do satirical routines about the issues of the day—the war in Iraq, terrorism alerts, and whatnot. Something tells me that the folks at Mercury never would have gone for this.


Now past the 40 mark but still looking and sounding terrific, Shocked has mellowed into a generous, sunny performer, who plays all her old favorites with the enthusiasm and irreverence of an old pro. Even this night at the Knit, when the crowd was disappointingly small, she gave it up like we were an arena full of screaming fans, instead of a bunch of mild-mannered thirty- and forty-somethings who sang along only when asked and politely clapped after each song. It may sound corny, but she’s inspiring to watch. Here’s a woman who went through some serious hell, from her legal battles to the infamous episode in which her mother put her in a mental institution, but she’s come out the other side of it positively brimming over with joie de vivre.


During the portion of the show we caught, Shocked went through four different segments, each separated by a skit from Bergman and Burrell, who were a far cry from brilliant but charmingly earnest enough that their intrusions never got annoying. For the first segment Shocked played solo, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, singing politically themed songs: her own “Graffiti Limbo”, about a New York graffiti artist who was choked to death by police after tagging a subway station, and the classic “Midnight Special”, which I guess isn’t really a political song, but in Shocked’s delivery of its jailhouse lyrics somehow becomes one. Shocked then brought her band out and led them through three numbers off Arkansas Traveler: “Strawberry Jam”, on which Shocked endearingly (and somewhat ineptly) attempted a fiddle solo; the fan favorite “Prodigal Daughter”; and “Jump Jim Crow”, her wry deconstruction of old minstrel show songs. For both these parts of the show, the vibe was intimate and folksy; Shocked got the crowd singing along for the choruses, and her bandmates provided low-key accompaniment.


Then Shocked exchanged her acoustic guitar for an electric and launched into what you might call the “greatest hits” portion of the show: a glorious trifecta of high-energy renditions of “When I Grow Up”, “Anchorage” and “Come a Long Way”. It’s probably safe to say that Shocked has played these songs hundreds of times, but her delivery of them remains as fresh as if she wrote them yesterday. “When I Grow Up” erupted into a raucous Chicago-style blues jam, with Shocked gleefully ripping power chords while her lead guitarist did his best Buddy Guy impersonation. “Anchorage” became a conversation not just between Shocked and her long-lost friend from Alaska, but between her and the audience too; after the line, “Tell me what’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker”, Shocked boasted, “I was, too! I had a nose ring before any of y’all even thought about it!” And “Come a Long Way”—well, “Come a Long Way” is just one of the greatest pop songs of all time, and Shocked still delivers it with the same breathless energy she brought to the studio version over a decade ago.


She finished her set with two tracks off Deep Natural, both of which showcase Shocked’s strong Christian values with soulful, gospel-tinged melodies and spiritually charged lyrics. “Good News” is a bluesy protest anthem, but a relentlessly positive one, while “That’s So Amazing” is just the sound of a woman who’s really content with life. You might argue that these songs lack the teeth of Shocked’s youthful, edgier work like “Street Corner Ambassador” and “Memories of East Texas”, and you’d probably be right, but her best work has always had a warmth and humanity to it that she’s just now, with all her personal struggles behind her, finally settling into. What makes “Anchorage” such a great song, for example, is that it never tries to slip in any patronizing social commentary about its housewife narrator; Shocked’s affection for both old friend and her younger self is equally strong, giving this song about the choices we make in life a poignancy that’s rare in popular music.


Because of that damn dance club, Shocked had no time for an encore; she and her band were off the stage at 10:00 p.m. sharp, to depart that night, she announced, for their next gig in Arizona. Shocked was unperturbed by any of this. “Our bus driver just quit earlier tonight, so we’re not sure how we’ll get there,” she announced with a grin, “but it will work out. It always does.” Apparently for Michelle Shocked, everything really has worked out. I wonder how many of the fans waited outside after the show to volunteer to drive her bus.

Tagged as: michelle shocked
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