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Laurie Anderson 9/11 concert at Park West revisited

Greg Kot

4:15 PM CDT, September 11, 2013

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On the night of Sept. 11, 2001, Laurie Anderson decided to go ahead with her scheduled performance at Park West, even though her city had been devastated earlier that day. Here's my Tribune review of that performance.

It was one of those moments "when everything changes," Laurie Anderson sang, in a voice that sounded like she was narrating a documentary: Slightly detached, pleasant in its lilting enunciation, yet ominous. "But you don't know yet, whether it's for the better or the worse."

Nothing would be the same after Tuesday, and everyone at the Park West that night -- most especially Anderson -- knew it. Her songs, some of them written as many as 20 years ago, were eerily evocative of a collective mood that desperately cried out for some sort of public expression.

The staging was stark and somber, in contrast to the multimedia extravaganzas of past Anderson tours. The singer, dressed in black and flanked by three brilliant musicians who conjured atmospheres that exquisitely suited her songs, was in tune with her listeners. She set out to help them make sense of a world that had suddenly, shockingly lost its bearings.

In times of crisis, we look to our artists not necessarily to provide answers, but to give shape and dimension to the doubts and anxieties washing over us. Their work can be a balm or a purge, an acknowledgment that our private fears are shared by others.

That is why Anderson's concert Tuesday was not only welcome, but necessary. Throughout the entire nation, on a day when terrorist attacks reduced many of us to a stunned silence, public performances of any kind were at a premium. But Anderson's instincts were correct: It is far preferable to face the unspeakable together, especially if the artist in question is up to the task, and she was.

The Park West was packed for this homecoming by the 54-year-old native of Glen Ellyn, and she immediately addressed the harsh reality of the day, dedicating the 105-minute performance "to all those who have died today."

It was a straightforward, dignified remark, and it set the tone for what followed: a performance that avoided pathos or melodrama, or too-obvious song selections such as her harrowing "From the Air," yet struck exactly the right chord of empathy and awareness, longing and humor.

The resonance and sturdiness of Anderson's songwriting was put to the test, and it did not falter. Her great themes aren't particularly unique: the intersection of humanity and technology, the price of progress, and the loss of our identity and freedom. But she invests them with quirky insight, haunted musicality and depth of feeling that make her more than just a performance artist coldly tinkering with her high-tech gadgets.

She opened with a melancholy instrumental, performed on violin, with funeral bells chiming and Skuli Sverrisson's bass tracing a path to "Statue of Liberty," chilling in its appropriateness: "Freedom is a scary thing," Anderson sang, "so precious, so easy to lose."

The same was true of "Strange Angels," and its chant of "here they come, here they come," with Sverrisson's bass figures taking on the role of a second voice. For Anderson, who has performed many of her concerts solo backed by intense multimedia sound and imagery, the presence of a band so sensitive to her needs was appropriate and oddly comforting. Only when the music became more strident, approaching the cadences and tempos of conventional rock, did it fail to impress. Mostly, Sverrisson, percussionist Jim Black and keyboardist Peter Scherer were concerned with coloring in the spaces behind Anderson's minimalist keyboards, violin and sing-speak vocals, and they did so beautifully.

Before the austerity became too oppressive, the house lights briefly came on and Anderson suggested the audience draw pictures of her so that she could sell them at her next tour stop. "Good luck with your drawings!" she cheerfully said as pencils and paper were passed out. It was difficult not to laugh at the absurdity, which was precisely the point. She also broke up several songs with spoken-word interludes, which had the earmarks of fables, twisted bedtime stories or nursery rhymes for grownups.

When Anderson got back to business, the concert found its emotional center. "O Superman" remains one of the great compositions of the last two decades, a terrifying portrait of trust, security and love misplaced that Anderson performed solo at her keyboard, the electronically altered beats a cross between rhythmic breathing and a dehumanized last gasp. It was followed by "Slip Away," which sounds like an agnostic's postmodern response to the bluegrass Bible-belt masterpiece "O Death."

With "Love Among the Sailors," Anderson pulled all the threads together, and brought the audience to its feet. The last verse bears repeating, because it so eloquently gave voice to what so many must have been feeling on this day: violated, threatened, but still somehow yearning for community.

“There is a hot wind blowing

Plague drifts across the oceans

And if this is the work of an angry god

I want to look into his angry face

There is no pure land now, no safe place

Come with us into the mountains

Hombres. Sailors. Comrades.”

greg@gregkot.com