Laurie Anderson’s in a category all her own. What exactly is she? Pop musician? Classical? Performance artist? Monologuist? Some combination of all those, I suppose. I saw her for the first time last night (April 16) in a Museum of Contemporary Art concert at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, and it was just as unusual of an experience as I expected.
On this tour, Anderson is performing a piece she calls “Homeland.” Given her history of commenting through her music on the strangeness of the modern world, it’s not surprising that she would be doing music and monologues now commenting on terrorism, war, security, insecurity, all of those peculiar things and moods that are in the air these days. Anderson’s performance pieces are not exactly coherent, single works of art. They certainly don’t stick to lyrical or music themes as consistently as, say, an opera. In a way, they’re what used to be called concept albums. So last night, it felt mostly like Anderson was presenting a new set of songs, with a few common themes running through them.
Anderson’s music sounds a little less electronic and little more classical than it did when she first became known in the 1980s, but there’s still a certain ’80s sensibility to the keyboard sounds and soft breathy electronic palette of her music. At a few points, Anderson and her trio of backing musicians sounded a lot like a Peter Gabriel record – or was that Peter Gabriel imitating Laurie Anderson back in the day? I’m not sure who influenced who more.
Anderson’s never been a great writer of melodies, assuming that she has even tried. When she sang last night, the slight tunes were pleasant enough to carry the audience along, although we’d be hard-pressed to hum any of it afterward. When she spoke – sometimes in that altered voice that sounds male – Anderson delivered the evening’s most memorable moments. She referred to the models on billboards as the “underwear gods” and imagined them descending onto the streets of New York. And in one bit that combined her humor and political insights, she acted out an archetypal scene from old Western movies – the man rushing into a tavern and exclaiming, “There’s trouble at the mine!” – and turned it into a metaphor for the state of affairs in our country today.