She's Come a Long Way From Gilmer

By Paul Moffett

Sometimes you get lucky, even on Friday the 13th.

In the case of the audience at Headliners, lucky event was being there when Michelle Shocked and her band, the Perverse All-stars, were "on," as in "hot"; "In the pocket"; "In the groove"; Or however you describe a concert where everything goes right and the performers and fans are all having a really good time.

The Gilmer, Texas (or was it Dallas?) native, born Karen Johnson (or Johnston), who first cracked the national scene with her semi-underground release on Cooking Vinyl records, The Texas Campfire Tapes, has made a career out of uncompromising musical exploration, refusing to be slotted into any musical format, much to the disgust of her major label, Mercury Records, from which she was canned, winding up with all rights to her material. Subsequently, she learned that the real reason Mercury wouldn't promote her albums was not her cross-genre playing but a bean counter unhappiness with the deal she had negotiated. (She cited the anti-slavery 13th Amendment to the Constitution as part of her legal action against the company.)

Her Headliners show featured a five- or six-piece rock band, complete with keyboards and a horn player, plus sit-ins by one of her crew on accordion. Joining her was former Hothouse Flowers co-founder Fiachna O'Broainain, who doubled on guitar, penny whistle and rampant enthusiasm. Shocked herself played solid-body electric throughout the show, even taking a few lead breaks, which might have dismayed some of her more fixated fans, though few in the audience seemed troubled by this.

Shocked is the sort of artist who connects with her fans in very individual ways, appealing especially to those feeling disenfranchised, oppressed, ignored or otherwise put down by elements of the society. Opening with a bit of preaching mixed into the first song, "Let It Go," she maintained and extended those connections with an ultimately adoring audience, which eventually filled the dance floor in front of Headliners stage, sometimes dancing but as often as not, simply standing and watching fixedly.

"That's So Amazing" benefited from the addition of the horn player and featured Shocked encouraging the audience to sing along with her, a tactic she used regularly throughout the evening. "West Pico Avenue" was a sonic description of her Los Angeles neighborhood, highlighted by a hooky rock chorus.

The familiar opening chords from her hit single "Anchorage," from the 1988 Pete Anderson-produced Short, Sharp, Shocked, brought immediate shouts of recognition and erased any lingering doubts the crowd might have had about her musical intentions for the night. The next two tunes, "When I Grow Up," and "Repo Man," put the audience firmly in Shocked's hands for the rest of the night. Thereafter, it was a rock `n' roll dance fest, demonstrating why Shocked is considered one of the great performers of her generation: she and the band laid it all on the table and took nothing away with them when they left. Even the encore, normally a two-song closer for the night, stretched out as she led the band into a tune that they had never played together before and turned it into a satisfying and extended jam.

Though Michelle Shocked has long had a reputation as a politically proper scold, hectoring her listeners with tirades about the inequity of it all, she pretty much kept a lid on it and instead delivered what proved to be far more effective: a rock `n' roll sermon that will bond her listeners to her for a good deal longer than any political action piece could ever hope to achieve. It turns out that she understands that careers - and legacies - are built on hope, spirit and happiness rather than finger-pointing and that means we all will have more Shocked experiences to look forward to.