Melissa Etheridge confided that performing in Helzberg Hall with the Kansas City Symphony on Friday was “a dream come true for a girl from Leavenworth.” An audience of about 1,400 witnessed the fulfillment of her aspiration in the opening night of the Kansas City Symphony’s new Pops season.
When Etheridge’s debut single “Bring Me Some Water” astonished the rock community in 1988, the Kansas native was a particularly unlikely candidate to one day perform in an orchestral setting. The lusty hit set the tone for an auspicious career in which she has specialized in impassioned variations of the earthy heartland rock associated with Bob Seger and John Mellencamp.
The thunderous arrangement of “Bring Me Some Water” executed Friday revealed that Etheridge’s histrionic sensibility lends itself to correspondingly dramatic treatments. The epic sonic scale furnished by a full orchestra also suited additional Etheridge hits like “I’m the Only One.”
Partly because the drummer of the three-piece band that joined Etheridge at the front of the stage occasionally overwhelmed the Symphony, a few of the most successful selections were quiet songs that Etheridge said were “harder to do at a rock concert.”
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Etheridge dedicated “Meet Me in the Dark,” a tender song about forbidden love in homophobic environments, to “anyone who is struggling to be who they are.” The rendition of the deeply affecting song resembled the climactic number of a Broadway musical. The winsome “You Can Sleep While I Drive” was no less gorgeous.
While those selections reflect Etheridge’s impressive compositional skills, three covers provided the concert’s best moments. A lush bed of strings heightened the poignancy of Joan Armatrading’s “The Weakness in Me.” She testified convincingly on an urgent interpretation of William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.” Etheridge momentarily usurped the role of Associate Conductor Jason Seber with her gesticulating during a dramatic pause in a spine-tingling reading of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
Etheridge is one of very few rock musicians who are fully capable of tackling Redding’s classic hits. The scratchiness of her gloriously ragged voice is balanced by impeccable vocal control. She’s a more compelling vocalist today than she was at the height of her popularity 25 years ago.
Etheridge was in a nostalgic mood, frequently citing her affection for area landmarks and institutions. After she acknowledged that “I’m so proud to be from here,” rightfully vociferous fans made it clear that they treasure Etheridge and her fervent music.
(Etheridge and the Kansas City Symphony will also perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, and at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24.)
Set List: Fearless Love; You Can Sleep While I Drive; Take My Number; The Weakness in Me; I Want to Come Over; I Need to Wake Up; I’ve Been Loving You Too Long; Nowhere to Go; It Will Be Me; I Run For Life; Ruins; I Forgot to Be Your Lover; Pulse; What Happens Tomorrow; Meet Me in the Dark; Come to My Window; I’m the Only One; Bring Me Some Water; Like the Way I Do