Monday, January 18, 2021

January 18th 2020, Laurie Anderson at Koerner Hall

Laurie Anderson has always been an artist in the truest sense of the word. Intelligent, focused, and committed to her work, I've always admired her singular vision in what she does. I saw her on January 18th 2020 at Koerner Hall where she gave an amazing performance, and like the Tempers show that I wrote about a few days ago it has an even greater appeal given it's status as one of only a few shows that I saw in 2020.

My appreciation for Anderson goes back to the mid-eighties when I first heard her track with Peter Gabriel, "This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)", a CD only bonus on the "So" album and a sound that was haunting and vaguely unsettling amid all the other songs. Curious about her work I soon discovered "Home of the Brave" and it's lead single "Language is a Virus" where Anderson blended story telling with musical elements in really effective and engaging ways. Her use of voice processing and spoken word elements was completely different from everything else that I was listening to at the time, and while I'm sure that there were other artists doing similar kinds of work, Anderson was the first I was aware of to bring everything together so effectively which gave her a certain status and distinction in my mind as a result.

A few years after discovering her music I had the opportunity to see her live during a trip to London at a show on the Empty Places tour. She was fascinating, totally in control of what she was doing, using synths and voice processors to create this otherworldly backdrop for her comments and observations. The show ended with her crouched at the front of the stage with a tiny synth and a single spotlight shining down on her as she spoke. It was pretty amazing.

Since then I've seen her a few times at different spaces, always enjoyable and always entertaining. This last time in 2020 she was at Koerner Hall, a venue on the University of Toronto campus just a few minutes walk from where I live. It's not a venue I've been to many times before, maybe only a couple of times for book readings (I saw Stephen King do a talk there a couple of years ago on the "Sleeping Beauties" promotional tour). It's a good space with great acoustics, well suited for a show like Anderson's.

She was touring with a cellist named Rubin Kodheli and his playing provided a fabulous improvisational backdrop to Anderson's stories about life in New York City in the late twenty-teens. She spoke on a number of topics, made a number of observations and reflections. Anderson is an exceptional story teller who paints richly detailed images with her words, and over the course of the show she flowed seamlessly through stories about primal scream therapy, and Yoko Ono, and birds, and life, and birds, and death, and birds, and Lou Reed.

Anderson and Reed were a couple from the early 1990s until his death in 2013 and over that time their individual influence had a tremendous effect that built on and complimented each other's work. His presence was very evident in her performance that night, with samples of him reading and Anderson speaking to the Dirty Boulevard. In all of her references to New York there was an implied sense of Reed still being a part of the city, an intrinsic element that runs through it's heart, making for a touching tribute to him both as an artist and as her partner, beautiful, and really quite moving...

Over the course of that night in January Anderson kept the audience spellbound and engaged, beguiled and amused under a spell that she and Kodheli had cast, and I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. Seeing Laurie Anderson has always been a particular delight, and I'm glad that I had the chance to see her once more before everything changed in the world. I can only imagine the stories that she'll have to tell when life returns to normal, when she has the chance to come back to Toronto for another performance. And I know that I'll be there to hear them...

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