Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Michelle Shocked Live At The CSPS Hall

Michelle Shocked
Live at the CSPS Hall, Cedar Rapids, IA
Monday, May 14, 2012

It has been nearly a quarter-century since Michelle Shocked has been on my radar, and I imagine for many fans, fair-weather though we may be, Short Sharp Shocked remains as their first and only foray into her body of work.

But Ms. Shocked’s sophomore record is such a significant release that even after 25 years, I am still interested on where her troubadour Converse All-Stars has taken her. So when Michelle stopped by my community on Monday night, I determined that “Anchorage” was a brilliant left-field smash that required me to attend.
Dressed in those black high tops, Michelle shows some of the age of the years in her face, but her body bounds around like the youthful version. And the fight is still there: white t-shirt, tight black jeans, an old Bob Dylan conductor hat, and a red bandana around her neck with the word “Occupied” prominently printed across the front. She came prepared to talk some dialogue about the 99% movement-a cause, which got her, arrested during a protest in Los Angeles last November (she told the pigs her name was Michelle 99)-but thankfully she brought an acoustic guitar on Monday night and someone left behind a nice piano for her to play around with, making the evening more than just a political event.

On that second effort, Michelle is seen being choked by someone ironically hired to serve and protect on the cover of Short Sharp Shocked. He did neither in Michelle’s case, but the startling image makes it one of the most powerful covers in the past quarter-century, and her East Texas ease belies a strong woman who can back up her convictions with potent words and intimidating vocal range.

The performance took place in the CSPS Hall, a century old structure next to an old firehouse, both of which took on extensive damage from the 2008 flood. Finally, some life is coming to the downtown area in between pockets of unrecovered devastation and an obvious appearance that something indeed ran clean over the landscape.

This was my first visit to the restored center, which features a nice stage in an auditorium upstairs, perfect for artists who may not be familiar that there is a market for this out in the heartland.

For Shocked, she nearly filled the area, but the layout was very informal and Michelle used a platform in front of the stage for her acoustic set, bringing her even closer to the audience. I got there late, and as I was being hushed over to a seat, I noticed that she had captured about a half-dozen patrons from the audience and was wrapping up an impromptu version of “This Land Is Your Land.”

I wasn’t prepared for an evening of Woody or audience participation (more on that later), but being blessed with perfect timing, she set on to a set of obligatory favorites, most of which came from Short Sharp Shocked.

Shocked provided an update to “Leroy” and his wife from “Anchorage,” with the narrator now a grandmother and Leroy’s job bringing them down to Montana. Shocked mentioned that she drove from their place in Billings to then drive to Omaha and then  to Cedar Rapids, treating the couple as if they were long-lost friends of us in the audience, which they were in a way. “I look like an old housewife,” admitted Shocked during the song’s sudden self-realization.

I couldn’t help but thinking that, for all of her talk of turning 50 and growing old, Michelle Shocked is still doing things her way and does not seem one to bow to authoritative demands. That’s probably farther from the truth for most people who age, some who even must be taking steps of complacency as they approach what’s left of their retirement.

There were some moments of nostalgia, thinking back on the guy who stood her up at senior prom and adding a few licks towards the backwoods culture she calls her leveling point. But there was no condescending tone and she seemed to bend over backwards for us to sing along, and to engage when the discussion turned to foreclosure or what the occupy moment stood for.

Just when you felt that you had your fill of progressive dogma, Shocked announced that she’d be back to lead a brief forum on the topic, after she called her boyfriend on the phone and played three new songs before the intermission.

No joke. Shocked grabbed her phone and called her boyfriend David Willardson just as she sat down to the piano where she began explaining the large portraits behind her. Each one began as a painting by David, followed by an incredible muse they created over Michelle, which in turn created the song. At first, the entire “hold the phone up to the microphone” bit got somewhat uncomfortable. After a while, Willardson on the other end just became another character in the community, offering a few insights to the painting while Shocked gave her musical rendition. She had high praise for Mr. Willardson, even suggesting (with him still on the phone) that she was expecting to be married by the end of the year, a decision she made while hearing the refrain of a sermon in her head, encouraging her to do the right thing with her relationship.

With the intermission ending, Shocked continued talking to David on the phone before ending the call and leading the now reduced crowd on a discussion of the Occupy movement. For those that were left, if I may use profiling tactics, none of them looked like the housing crisis took much out of them, and indeed, which Shocked pressed the crowd for personal accounts, no one raised their hand to testify.

Shocked quickly got the sense that it may be our polite Midwestern demeanor, but I think that none of those in attendance had anything to add to the discussion, even when most seemed to be in perfect harmony with her progressive ideals.

You could tell that the momentum she was trying to muster up was merely glossing over the fans that stayed to hear just a few more songs and a few more tales of East Texas.

For me, the moment came during “Graffiti Limbo,” another Short Sharp Shocked tracks, this time extended and with bonus footage. “You wanna hear the long version or the edit?” she asked, leading the audience to naturally respond for the former. What we learned was that the evidence the corner lost in this 1988 account of the death of graffiti artist Michael Stewart, was in fact Michael’s eyes.

The original song only suggested something was lost, but the retelling plays up the ”justice is blind” irony of this case that never did find the accuser.

“To serve and protect.”

It was a pretty poetic moment, if you let the words sink in a bit. You may have even found a correlation between the content and what happened in our town just a few days prior, when a man was placed in the back of a Cedar Rapids squad car and was unresponsive when he arrived at the jail.

His family just made the decision to take him off life support.

This kind of thing makes me grateful that Shocked is still out their raising a stink. It’s reassuring to know as well that her stink still sounds pretty good. The new songs found an emotional depth and a sense of challenging herself by adhering to a new idea of combining song-cycles with her boyfriend’s work, even adding more musicians to the process for an entire piece.

But even armed with just an acoustic guitar and that underrated voice, Shocked can hold her own quite well and would be the first to admit that all of this is “Just one woman’s opinion.”


Tanja said...

You get super extra punk rock points if you know the band that she borrowed the Short Sharp Shocked cover from.

Todd Totale said...


Tanja said...


Tanja said...

Chaos U.K. I guess they are kind of obscure. I do remember being surprised when I saw her use it.