There’s a funny thing about getting paid to go to and write about performances. As much as you might look forward to seeing a certain artist, you get spoiled and you forget that a single show on some random Tuesday night (well, Oct. 23) at some random venue (Campbell Hall) put on by some random organization (UCSB Arts & Lectures) might just turn out to be one of the most moving performance events you have ever witnessed.
When I walked into Campbell on Tuesday night and saw the scattered candles burning across the stage and the smoke billowing in the light, I still did not know what to expect from that night. Laurie Anderson is famous in the performing arts world — she’s even a little famous in the classic rock world, as the wife of Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed — but knowing those things in no way prepared me for the phenomenal performance we in the audience were about to see.
The setting was somewhat minimal for a 90-minute show, though I am sure the thought behind it was not: along with the candles, a stand with a synthesizer panel stood almost front and center, a comfy-looking armchair sat stage-right and two colored screens adorned the stage. A large screen ran along the whole back of the stage and shifted colors subtlety throughout the performance, with a small rectangular screen on a stand placed near the chair. It was bright blue when the lights dimmed and the performance finally began.
A strange sort of nervousness hung in the air before Anderson took the stage; I suspect most of the crowd was also unsure of what to expect. That’s a great challenge with going to performance events — you entrust performers with a chunk of time in your life that you will never get back, whether or not the performance is incredible or terrible or really uncomfortable.
Some audience members may have still felt this concern when Anderson moved to center stage and began playing her electric violin. The sounds were almost instantly intense and passionate, looping onto each other to create a loud, booming melody throughout Campbell Hall. However, the intro did not last long and soon Anderson was setting down the instrument and using a more familiar one — her voice.
Over a heavy, atmospheric backing track, the artist began telling a story about reading a peculiar sentence by Charles Darwin: “The peacock makes me sick.” The thought cited a discomfort with the fact that survival of the fittest may actually just be survival of the most attractive, which also means that women are making all of the evolutionary decisions; Darwin, rather homely himself, may have been concerned about where this left him on the evolutionary spectrum. This opening elicited much laughter from the audience.
Anderson delivered her words in a sort of dry, drawling way, and every sentence unfolded in a similar rhythm. Her manner of speaking may have soon started to sound repetitive, but her subtle humor made the audience comfortable and receptive to the rest of her performance; it told us she was not taking herself completely seriously — that this was a sort of character — and so we were eased into a show that interspersed music and stories about everything from Darwin’s peacock envy to tent towns in New Jersey to the Occupy movement to her piano-playing dog, Lolabelle.
Though the dramatic delivery of the thought-provoking stories was imbued with humor, the middle section about Lolabelle was probably the biggest depart from Anderson’s serious character. During the dog section, she moved from the stand to the armchair and became much more casual; suddenly she was just a lady telling you stories. The stories in that section primarily dealt with death — the death of the dog, the death of her friend (the artist Gordon Matta-Clark) and the traditions surrounding death in Buddhism (which Anderson practices). Her description of spiritual teachers yelling instructions into Matta-Clark’s ears as he died — Buddhists believe hearing is the last sense to leave the body — was riveting and heavy, but Anderson always managed to pick up the mood again. At the end of the story about Lolabelle’s passing, she shared videos on the small screen of Lolabelle being trained to play a keyboard for treats. Anderson was especially light here, standing near the screen and adding funny commentary to the videos, seeming at last to be herself and not a character.
But her strange character — and even her use of voice modification to sound like her masculine alter-ego, the “voice of authority” Fenway Bergamot — totally worked throughout the piece, simply because her storytelling is so good.
Anderson touched on some dark issues in “Dirtday!,” like the changing meaning of words, as in the bill that was passed to redefine the U.S. as a “battleground” and thus allow the military to detain citizens without charging them for indefinite amounts of time.
She also spoke about the foreclosure crisis by telling a story about visiting Tent City Lakewood, New Jersey, where many unprepared people were forced out of their homes and into the cold woods when the economy left them no other choice. At the end of her visit there, she was surprised when a woman she had just met told her “Have a nice day!” She said these people functioned like Alzheimer’s victims, unable to live their lives normally but able to recall how to interact with other people. She said that toward the end of our lives, we might hope for small “flashes” of “wisdom, bravery and wonder,” but instead, all we remember are “small pleasantries left from a lifetime of politeness.”
Anderson was able to float between all of these topics, stopping at the end of each section to play violin and slightly shift the colored screens and lights, by interweaving and coming back to certain phrases and words again and again. She often returned to the mesmerizing, poetic image of the world “spinning.” At the end of the show, she managed to tell her final story — about being a kid and trying to imagine “things that had never happened,” like a duck having a heart attack and falling out of the sky to land on some guy’s head and kill him — with her same quiet humor, and with subtle allusions to the other topics she had explored in the show.
The power of her stories was in her ability to paint vivid scenes, rich with meaning, while never hitting you over the head with their significance. Everything, down to the shifting of lights and colors — a long spotlight from the center of Campbell Hall’s ceiling illuminated her during parts of her standing speeches, making Campbell seem huge and Anderson seem like was channeling some great spiritual deity — was done with such care.
“Dirtday!” was a stunning and intimate experience, and one that I doubt will be rivaled by anything else I witness for some time. That is, until I have the fortune of seeing Laurie Anderson perform again. I hope I don’t have to wait too long.