Saturday, December 31, 2022

Having fun onstage

Ringing in the New Year with Lydia Loveless
DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—I was happy to round out the year with Lydia Loveless and her band in a loose, intimate show at Golden Dagger, a tiny box of a venue in Chicago. I hadn't seen Loveless for years, and was pleased to watch her play, and goof around, with the same fellas from last time, guitarist and keyboard players Jay Gasper and Todd May and drummer George Hondroulis, along with bassist Mark E Commerce. In addition to their rhythm section, the band fit three guitarists—well, four, if you count Gasper's twelve-string—on a postage stamp-sized "stage" winkingly cordoned off with a toy-size velvet rope. Wedge in two keyboards and it was a tight fit under the lights. The old pals hit a warm groove from the opening number,  and Loveless made the small space her own. The joint was sold-out (she's playing there again tonight) and the crowd was attentive and grateful, singing her songs right back to her. The woman behind me had flown in from Brooklyn for the show.

Loveless played several songs from her most recent album, 2020's Daughter ("Love Is Not Enough" killed) as well as a handful from Real (2016) and Somewhere Else (2014). She introduced "Daughter," an emotionally complex and personal song, as being about reproductive rights, and "Sex and Money," a new song, as about "being poor and thinking about sex a lot." (So too was the band, apparently; the evening abounded with innocently smutty jokes. Life on the road.) Later she remarked of another new song: "it's about health care," then stopped, screwed up her face and chuckled, and said, "and it's about breaking up with someone," adding, "All my songs are about breaking up with someone, and then worrying about health care." It was funny—it got a laugh—but it's also genuinely true, as she writes songs that navigate the complicated politics of a woman's body, from desire and surrender to autonomy and self-reliance. "Fuck this country," she was heard to mutter at one point.

Loveless wore a spangly top, black pants, and sparkly boots. A couple of days ago she cut her hair to somewhere between a pixie and a crew cut, which makes her seem even more diminutive, and even more arresting as she belted out her songs. Her terrific band plays with loose-limbed, frayed-at-the-edges comfort, Gasper the class clown in a Metro hoodie, cracking jokes, leaning into Loveless to grinningly mock a melody hook, bandana-wearing May with an air of distraction, absorbed with his beat-up Fender, at a few points crouching on the stage to play a small keyboard. He seemed fascinated with it all. 

The band orbits Loveless, who was equal parts flip and self-deprecating. At the close of the opening number, she stepped back and tripped/stumbled, mouthed "Oh shit!", and laughed merrily—this set the mood for a band that plays serious songs about romance and messiness without ever taking themselves too seriously. Despite Loveless's trademark poignant songs, material devoted to love and loss, the night was fun, and also funny, the musicians goofing around between (and during) songs, suggesting there's a thin line between life in the van and life onstage with this group. During several songs her tour manager Michelle Sullivan hopped onstage to sing back-up (and groove and wave a plastic flower), following one song taking drink orders for the band; "waitress, tour manager, whatever," she muttered to me as she smilingly headed to the bar. 

Loveless's records are great; onstage, her personality, which is often channeled through personae in her songs, emerges, and she's a blast. Midway through the show someone behind me yelled for her nervy 2011 ditty "Steve Earle," but she flatly refused. "I'll never play that song again," before adding, "Don't video this 'cause he might see on the internet and I'd feel bad." Her blend of vulnerability and no-shits-to-give is very appealing. I once wrote about her voice: "Her twang usually arrives snapping off the end of a line, as a kiss-off or a heartbreak, sassy or vulnerable, depending on the mood." She's lost a bit of that twang on her newer material, which is more polished than her her noisier, rawer Bloodshot stuff, but that shifting mood remains, and the hard edges return onstage. Walking a line, she delivers moving and lasting songs. Highlights included "Poor Boy," "Real," an affecting "Wringer" during a brief solo set, "Summer Lover," which she announced she'd written for a songwriting workshop she teaches as an attempt to produce "a sweet love song," and "Bilbao," which, half-lamenting, she remarked is about the breakup of her marriage and yet's a song that everyone wants her to play "at weddings and shit." Such are the dimensions her songs assume, inside of which she, despite her casual air onstage, loses herself, and reemerges often visibly moved.

Her humor's as earnest as her songs are thoughtful. She ended one long tune by opening her eyes, stepping to the mic, and then, gathering herself in a very Loveless guise of humor and melancholy, said "Intensity! Whoo!" Then she smiled and apologized.

No comments: