In the middle of her concert at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier Wednesday night, English soul wunderkind Joss Stone told the packed audience a story her mother had just told her: when Mother Stone was pregnant with Joss, she saw Melissa Etheridge live. This story kind of sums up the experience of seeing the two of them perform at the Jazz Fest.
The truth is, I went to this double bill specifically to see Joss Stone, whose earthy, soulful voice and powerful tunes I adore. For me, Etheridge was just going to be the icing on the cake, as I was never a big fan. Heresy, I know, and certainly the entire sold-out middle-aged audience was there for Etheridge first; I doubt many of them even knew who Stone is. But I left the concert disappointed with Stone, and a total Etheridge convert.
I know it’s unfair to compare the two: Etheridge is a seasoned performer, a rock ‘n’ roll legend, particularly beloved by Montrealers (more about that later). Stone is young, but has received many well-deserved accolades. Still, if you’re going to perform at an international festival like the FIJM, on a double bill with Melissa Etheridge, there are a few things you have to perfect beyond your voice, your hair, and your dress (all of which were gorgeous). For example, don’t giggle. Don’t say OK at the beginning and end of every sentence. Absolutely do NOT introduce a song with a preamble, have the band start playing it, then change your mind and play another song! (She did this twice.) Also, there was something up with the sound. Stone has a huge voice, and there needs to be room for it in the mix. When she belted it out, it got lost—the bass was too high, the drums drowned her out, her voice distorted a little. She shone most brightly in the slower, more acoustic songs, where we could hear the subtle shadings of her instrument, like in Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” or “Sensamilla.” She ended her set with “Son of a Preacher Man,” a song she rocks on the recorded version. The audience loved it, but, again, there was something missing, and I’m not sure if it was a technical sound issue, her, or her band.
As soon as Etheridge and her band stepped on stage, and the lights went up, we were in a different universe. I don’t know what it is that separates great artists from really good ones, but it’s sheer magic when it’s there. There was no such thing as too loud or too much or too long; the audience thrived on every passing note. The band was well-rehearsed and super-tight, every pause and syncopation was perfectly timed, the lights and sound were fantastic, and Etheridge gave every ounce of her artistry to the audience.
Most of what she played was from her latest album, Memphis Rock and Soul, which features covers of hits from Stax records in Memphis from the 60s: “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “Dreams to Remember,” “Memphis Train,” “I Wouldn’t Have it Any Other Way,” and other songs that were so crucial to the foundation of rock. The concert was quite educational, as Etheridge spoke about why she loves this music, and how it influenced her own music. Blues, gospel, Appalachian folk music, soul, R&B, country: it all came together in Memphis in the 60s, giving birth to rock ‘n’ roll, via Otis Redding, Albert King, The Staple Singers, William Bell, and many others.
Etheridge changed up a few of the lyrics on occasion, making their universal messages even more resonant with today’s world. She spoke of being the change you want to see in the world—if you want there to be hope, be hopeful, if you want there to be respect, “Respect Yourself!” This song, along with every other one, was a highlight for me. Her guitar playing here, and on “Born Under a Bad Sign,” was phenomenal, as were her harmonica solos.
She threw in a few of her old hits too, like “Come To My Window,” which certainly got the audience on their feet. As the concert was coming to the end, she decided to add “Bring Me Some Water” to the set list, which she suddenly remembered was much loved in Montreal. And in fact, it turns out that Etheridge and Montreal have had a love affair since the late 80s, when she sold out concerts here long before audiences in the U.S. clued in. (Check out her pre-concert interview with Randy Renaud on CHOM to hear more about Etheridge’s long love affair with Montreal, and her French-Canadian roots: http://www.iheartradio.ca/chom?autoplay=1.2769609.) She thanked us for loving music so much, and ended the show with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” But not long enough: she came back and called Joss Stone onto the stage, and together they sang a tribute to Janis Joplin that was absolutely one of the biggest highlights of the evening. Finally, she ended with a stretched out “Does She Love You (the way I do) ,” wailing away not only on voice and guitar, but also on drums. When every last bit of music was squeezed out of her, Melissa and Montreal proclaimed their love for each other one more time, and she was gone.
Joss Stone and Melissa Etheridge played at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier Wednesday July 5 at 7:30pm.