Saturday, November 22, 2008

Concert Report - Janis Ian @ Tupelo Music Hall

Janis Ian at Tupelp Music Hall, November 20, 2008
Patti and I were back in our front row seats at Tupelo Music Hall this past Thursday night for an evening with Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Janis Ian.

For many in the audience, Janis is an icon and a legend and we greeted her warmly and paid rapt attention to her every word. Janis' concerts have a leisurely pace, and are as much about her stories as they are about the music. Three stories from Thursday night stood out for me.

The first was her recounting of the events surrounding her first hit single, "Society's Child" in the mid-1960s. This song is about an interracial romance between a white girl and her African American boyfriend, and the societal pressures that ensue from the girl's family, classmates, and teachers. Written when Janis was just 14 years old, it thrust her into the spotlight of the civil rights movement, and propelled her from playing 50 seat clubs to 1,500 seat halls almost overnight. She told of the controversy it generated in those racially turbulent times - a radio station in Atlanta was burned for playing it, and disc jockeys who played it were fired. And she told of hateful racial epithets being hurled at her as she sung the song, and her discovery of courage and the power of song to overcome hate and racism. Imagine a barely 5 foot tall Jewish teenager from New York mustering the courage to face bigotry and racism with lyrics and guitar (Janis mentioned the slogan written on Woody Guthrie's guitar: this machine kills fascists).

Come to my door, baby,
Face is clean and shining black as night
My mama went to answer
You know that you looked so fine
Now I could understand the tears and the shame
She called you "boy" instead of your name
When she wouldn't let you inside
When she turned and said
"But honey, he's not our kind."

Janis ended the first set with a long and well-practiced story of her mom. It built from the innocence of her mom's clumsy ways as a source of family humor, to the sober realization of the slow onset of multiple sclerosis as the real cause of mom's pratfalls, to the onset of depression and dementia. The description of her mom's last night left not a dry eye in the house, and was followed by "I Hear You Sing Again", a song that Janis finished based on unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics:

If I could only hear my mother sing again
If I could close my eyes and hear your voice as then
All the friends and family
would sing along with me,
and set your spirit free
In my heart I hear you sing again
Every note as natural as then
and when I sing those songs
for family and friends,
in my heart I hear you sing again

The third story preceded the humorous "Married in London." Janis is openly gay, and she recounted getting married to her partner in Toronto, and the amazing feeling of being treated as "normal" for once in her life. As much as we were all crying when she spoke of her mother's death, we were all bursting with joy and pride to hear this story of love and committment.

We're married in London
but not in New York
Spain says we're kosher
The States say we're pork
We wed in Toronto
The judge said "Amen"
and when we got home
we were single again

One nice surprise was the slow treatment given to John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Love Me Do." It's nice to hear such a familiar song given a well-done alternate delivery. We also were treated to, of course, Janis' most famous song - the 1975 Grammy award winning "At Seventeen." It's likely that if you have no idea who Janis is, you have heard this song:

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
and high school girls with clear skinned smiles
who married young and then retired
The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth
And those of us with ravaged faces
lacking in the social graces
desperately remained at home
inventing lovers on the phone
who called to say - come dance with me
and murmured vague obscenities
It isn't all it seems at seventeen

Want to learn or hear more? Head over to the Free Music Downloads page on for some free MP3s; count Janis among the enlightened musicians who understand that freely sharing her music is the absolute best way to sell more music and concert tickets. And, as always, YouTube is our friend...

"When The Party's Over" is a song that you might recognize from some FM airplay:

Another interesting thing that YouTube allows is to compare Janis "back then" and Janis today. Try these:

Finally, how about a little humor? "Married in London":

Oh, the photo at the top of this post is mine. I have a few more that I took posted on flickr.

The set list:

Set 1:
Through The Years
When The Party's Over
Society's Child
From Me To You
Silly Habits
My Autobiography
I Hear You Sing Again (Woody Guthrie/Janis Ian)
Set 2:
Love Me Do (Lennon/McCartney)
Tea & Sympathy
Light a Light
Married in London
At Seventeen
Encore: Jesse

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