Photo Credit: Joan Bowlen
There are a handful of performers whose records are strong and sometimes even dazzlingly first-rate, but where they truly shine is in the live arena. One of these few is Melissa Ferrick, who has been a figure in the music industry for twenty years now. Despite a series of changes in terms of record labels, agents and album sales, the one consistency that cements her as a vital force in the folk/rock world is her incredibly engaging and gripping live show. Often performing solo, Ferrick plays to a devoted legion of fans that know the deepest corners of her discography, yet also manages to enchant the uninitiated. Through a winsome blend of humor, visceral guitar playing, vulnerability, a healthy dose of heartbreak and passionate singing, Ferrick maximizes her time on stage and leaves her audience both satisfied and wanting more– but with 150 songs at the ready, that’s always going to be the case.
When she visited the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, she was already deep into the headlining tour behind this fall’s Still Right Here, her first release on MPress Records, and also her first studio album since 2008’s Goodbye Youth. The album’s ten tracks are definitely a departure from the melancholy and aching material from Youth, but one of the biggest difficulties with the record was how the heavy production sometimes drowned the songs underneath. In Berkeley, Ferrick performed solo, adorned with just two different guitars, and while she ended up playing the majority of Still Right Here, it was refreshing and encouraging to hear how strong the songs actually are. Beginning with the end of the album and working backward, Ferrick offered “This Time of Year,” “Weightless and Slow,” “Singing With The Wind” and “One Of A Kind” before diving into her back catalogue.
Her first choice of older songs was “Don’t Say Goodbye” from 1998’s Everything I Need. It was certainly a shift from the previous four songs, but it was a welcome example of Ferrick’s deft lyrical hand and thoughtful employ of bass riffs below a brisk finger-picked guitar line. “John’s Field” followed, which was actually much more soulful in concert than on record, and when she broke into full chest voice at the end it provided a nice contrast from the quiet pensiveness preceding it. Next was “Getting Over You,” which benefited nothing in its live translation, and still comes across as a bit too Ani DiFranco à la Educated Guess for comfort, and unfortunately doesn’t capture Ferrick’s talent at presenting heartbreak in innovative ways.
Thankfully, she picked up the tempo and energy with “Beijing,” the opening track from her superlative record The Other Side (2004). It was evident how much joy playing the song gave her, and her insanely fast finger-picking underneath the syncopated melody had the audience singing and dancing along. Following up with another track from the album, “Nebraska,” she really showed how so much of her older material continues to stand up against time and actually matures alongside her.
The rest of the set consisted of more recent work, except for the superlative “North Carolina” from Freedom (2000), which displayed Ferrick’s capacity at writing catchy, country-inspired uptempo folk songs. It got a great reaction from the audience, both from those singing along and the others laughing at Ferrick’s ad-libbing during parts of the song. Returning to Still Right Here material, the clear winner of the bunch was “Seconds Like These,” which had a magnificent rhythm and is much more poignant live than on album. Closing out with the stunningly beautiful ballad “Anything Anywhere,” during which she played the trumpet over a looped guitar part, and the inimitable and unyieldingly funny “Drive” Ferrick definitely delivered quite the ending to an already inspired performance.
One thing that many miss in their recollection of Melissa Ferrick is her humor. On record it can get lost among songs about love lost and found, sexual politics or usual folk music fare, but in concert it’s the foundation for the entire show. She speaks, sometimes at rapid pace, between every song, telling anecdotes about her life or the songs themselves, which creates a space that is definitely more informal but significantly more engaging. It may be cliché, but a Melissa Ferrick show is absolutely a “you’ve gotta be there” event, and if you’re wearing a lot of mascara, be prepared to wipe the smudges away, because she’ll have you laughing and crying throughout the two hours she’s on stage. And with her musical chops and charming personality, it’s a show not to be missed.
This Time Of Year
Weightless and Slow
Singing With The Wind
One Of A Kind
Don’t Say Goodbye
Getting Over You
‘Til You’re Dead
Seconds Like These
You Let Me Be
Still Right Here