Homeland is Laurie Anderson unplugged. No screen, no images. The barebones set of tea candles and a dozen dangling lightbulbs are like a return to the bohemian roots of performance art.
“American Night,” the hardest-hitting song of this politically charged, humor-inflected show, takes us back as well. Forget our current president, it was Ronald “Morning in America” Reagan who set the stage for our current “kids war,” as she calls it, in which young people everywhere are recruited (the refrain is “Calling ‘em up…”) to fight for America, Iraq, Palestine.
Citing Thomas Payne’s questioning if it makes sense for an island to rule a continent, Anderson asks: “Does it make sense for a country to rule the world?”
“Things from the middle ages/ Beheadings, cages/ Suddenly they’re everywhere, suddenly they’re alright…/ Welcome to the American night.”
Backed by Rob Burger on accordion and keyboards, Greg Cohen on electric and stand-up bass, and percussionist Joey Baron (a joy to hear and to watch), Anderson moved steadily through a dozen or so songs. (There’s no program so song names in this review are assumed). Playing her signature electric violin or singing in a haunting high lilt, Anderson was at times philosopher, at times fabulist, and at several times observational comedian.
Performance art has been often spoofed over the years (“Seinfeld,” Rent, David Sedaris’ self-deprecating memoirs). The show opened with Anderson telling a story about memory being born in a world with only birds and air. She often speaks in a precious manner, and it would be easy to roll one’s eyes at the artiness of it, but so goes it with much of this festival. Often personal taste is really a matter of attitude, and open-mindedness.
Speaking of “Seinfeld,” Anderson’s comments about how flying has become so sad, when it “should be a lot of fun, taking our clothes off in public,” may not be the freshest comedy, but was a welcome levity. And the ¬artist is smart . Once she told the audience it was okay to laugh (albeit using a ‘vocoder’ that transformed her own voice into a man’s baritone), she later took the same kind of humor to a richer level, talking about the “underwear gods,” beautiful giant models who com¬e down on the billboards of New York.
Of course, there might be a little bit of self-reflection in that piece. Anderson is to a receptive and liberal South Carolina audience what the underwear gods are to the Meat Packing District.
With an infectious beat, “Only an Expert Can Deal With a Problem” livened things up early on. Between that chorus (easily the one most likely to be hummed by the audience leaving the auditorium), Anderson offered pithy comments about experts and problems: U.N. weapons inspectors to global warming to the foreclosure crisis. Imagine Arlo Guthrie’s signature talking blues in the kind of show where one of the frontwoman’s instruments is a laptop.
Bringing the chorus around again and again built anticipation for the next topic to be tackled. Unfortunately, not the same could be said for the show, which at an hour and forty-five minutes is a few songs too long. A while after Anderson had introduced her band, the show was not over, and it was hard not to look anxiously at the binders on the music stands and hope each page turned was the last.
Nonetheless, there are worse things than a little too much of a legend. Usually when you go to a show you hear the influences. At Wednesday night’s opener, you heard the influence-ees: Alison Moyet, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, maybe even Annie Lennox.
Taking on the masters of war (“the market keeps rising, those big machines gotta go somewhere”). Anderson was at once deathly serious, personal and personable.
Laurie Anderson’s Homeland • Spoleto Festival USA • $25, $45 • June 4, 5 at 8 p.m.; June 6 at 9 p.m. • Memminger Auditorium • 56 Beaufain St. • (843) 579-3100