Laurie Anderson: Live in New York

Laurie Anderson
Live in New York

On September 19 and 20, 2001, audiences at New York City’s Town Hall welcomed Laurie Anderson home. Several weeks earlier, the performance artist and her band (Skuli Sverrisson [bass], Peter Scherer [keyboards], and Jim Black [drums]) had begun a tour that would take them through the northeastern United States and then on to Europe. For Anderson and her companions, the homecoming was a somber one, as they returned to a city whose landscape had been disastrously altered by the events of September 11. At a time when other performers were canceling shows and even entire tours, Anderson decided to go on with the show. Even more significant, New Yorkers came to the Town Hall to experience the performance, perhaps with the attitude that it would be good to get out for the evening and to be with people who, just over a week after the disastrous events, were still walking around in a state of shock. Reflecting on the state of the city upon her return, Anderson writes, “The atmosphere in the city was eerie, like during a strange holiday. The driven people in New York had all suddenly experienced enormous fear and uncertainty. Unable to predict, we were simply looking and listening” (“Some Thoughts on the ‘Live at Town Hall’ Recording”).

This atmosphere of “looking and listening” foregrounds the quietness of the Town Hall performances, which are especially significant for both the artist and her audience as they attempt to process what has happened to their city, themselves, and the people they love. Aspects of the performance are familiar (e.g., Anderson’s quick wit, her knack for telling a good story, and some of her most well-known songs), and the audience finds some reassurance in this familiarity. However, for much of the evening, Anderson and her audience travel through unfamiliar (and sometimes painful) emotional spaces, as the events of September 11 add a dimension to Anderson’s performance that had previously been unimaginable. Rather than providing listeners with answers, Anderson instead attempts to set the mood for thinking about loss and the future, as we decide what to do and how to live. Dedicating the Town Hall performances to “the great opportunity . . . to begin to truly understand the events of the past few days and to act upon them with courage and with compassion as we make our plans to live in a completely new world”, Anderson and her band thoughtfully guide listeners through musical ruminations on living our lives amid new uncertainties.

Originally intended to be a live version of the studio recording Life on a String, Live in New York instead showcases Anderson’s development as an artist by including some of her early work sprinkled among newer songs. Longtime Anderson fans will recognize “Let X=X”, “Sweaters”, “O Superman”, and “White Lily” from early in the performance artist’s career. Additionally, the CD contains tracks that Anderson has performed over the last decade: “Strange Angels”, “Poison”, “Coolsville”, “Love Among the Sailors”, and “Puppet Motel”. Anderson and her band interweave the old with the new, breathing new life into many of the songs; as a result, Live in New York is an engaging retrospective of Anderson’s career, as well as an indication of where Anderson is now and what directions her work might take in the future. Anderson confesses that she had some concerns about mixing older songs with those from Life on a String, thinking that the older material may sound dated and out-of-step with the new pieces. To her surprise, the previous works “fit together well” with the new songs, even though she did face some technological challenges (“Some Thoughts on the ‘Live at Town Hall’ Recording”). In an attempt to remain somewhat faithful to the technology of the original recordings, for example, Anderson favors analog rather than digital on some of the older tracks. The additions of bass, drums, and samplers to these older tracks freshens them, adding a new musical dimension to Anderson’s electronically generated sounds.

The CD opens with pieces from Life on a String. The first track, the haunting instrumental “Here with You”, establishes the quiet, contemplative tone. The band segues easily into “Statue of Liberty”, as Anderson changes a few lines of the song: “Freedom is a scary thing / Not many people want it” becomes “Freedom is a scary thing / So precious, so easy to lose”. Indeed, Anderson’s songs certainly take on an even deeper significance after the events of last September. Never before has “O Superman” seemed so timely: “Here come the planes…they’re American planes / Made in America”. While some would argue that Anderson’s work has proven to be prophetic, Anderson disagrees, concluding instead that “loss, betrayal, death, technology, anger and angels, these have often been the things I have written about. At Town Hall in New York I was singing for once about the absolute present” (“Some Thoughts on the ‘Live at Town Hall’ Recording”).

Of course, no Laurie Anderson performance would be complete without the artist’s trademark quirky sense of humor. Thankfully, Anderson provides listeners some comic relief with her funny stories of the surreal. “I met this guy, / And he looked like he might have been a hat check clerk / At an ice rink, / Which, in fact, he turned out to be. / And I said, / ‘Oh, boy . . . right again'” (“Let X=X”). Such moments remind us that it is still okay to laugh at the absurdities of everyday occurrences. “Wildebeests” invites us to laugh with Anderson as she traces the lineage of the American movie hero: “Beauty in all its forms / and hopefulness, too. / And John Wayne begat Clint Eastwood, / begat Bruce Willis, / begat Brad Pitt . . . / and so on. / Okay, cut . . . action”.

Including earlier material in a performance, though a departure from Anderson’s usual practice of writing music as part of a particular multimedia piece, contributes to the success of Live in New York. On this CD, we hear Anderson making connections between her past and her present in an attempt to understand where she has been and where she is going. At the same time, Anderson also connects with her audience as she and the audience try to achieve some understanding of recent events. In “Embracing New York” (Newsday, September 21, 2001), Martin Johnson explains the significance of Anderson’s Town Hall performances: “It was entirely appropriate that one of the first major concerts since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center featured Laurie Anderson. . . . . In general, her music seems emblematic of the city: ambitious, insightful, humorous and always teeming with four or five parts that really don’t seem like they should fit together but do.” Live in New York, perhaps better than any other musical recording since September 11, captures an artist and an audience just days after the terrorist attacks, allowing us to witness the beginnings of a process of understanding.