So what’s Laurie Anderson up to these days? Thirty-four candles on the stage floor of the Egg’s Hart Theater welcomed the audience Sunday night, setting a ghostly vibe that Anderson maintained through the two-hour performance of her latest work, called “Homeland.” Anderson’s “Homeland” show is more like performance art — a traveling museum exhibit — than a concert. One doesn’t leave the theater whistling her tunes; you leave either inspired, disturbed or angry, depending on how she hits you.
Before getting into the show, it needs to be said upfront that near the end of the show for one song — “The Lost Art of Conversation” — husband Lou Reed came out to join Anderson. It was an OK song, and Reed, as always, struggled through a brief, awkward guitar solo. Then, in quintessential Reed-style, he motioned to the sound engineer to turn everyone up and brief mayhem ensued. Musically, little good came of his appearance, but it gave the night a boost of excitement to have his presence in the hall. And then he was gone as soon as he appeared. He returned at the end to bow, and you got the sense that he was part of the band family, whether onstage or not.
A lark, but spooky
Anderson opened the show with “The Lark,” a narration on ancient birds that circled and circled “before the world began.” She spoke to us in a storybook tone, as if we were children, though it didn’t feel condescending. Instead she was spooky, like Leonard Cohen spooky. And when she concluded, explaining to us the “beginning of memory,” she bird-screeched on her electric violin.
Under a soft, mid-tempo, programmed drum beat that you felt more than heard, she whispered through “Bad” and “Transitory Life.” She sang a chorus on the latter that edged toward beautiful but always abruptly jumped back into the dark sci-fi setting with alarming lines alerting us to the depth of our nation’s situation: “It takes a long time for a mouse to realize he’s in a trap, but once he does, something inside him never stops trembling.”
Anderson has always had an affinity for technology She is less drawn to, say, the sound of rocks, leaves or water splashes. Sunday night was no different. For her comedic numbers, as in “Mambo and Bling,” she went through a device that transformed her voice into a deep male tone that complemented the humor.
“Only an expert can deal with the problem,” went the chorus to “Expert,” a commentary on our culture. Again she talked through the verses, which went like an op-ed piece, naming companies and saying things like “the solution becomes the problem.”
Thinker and artist
Anderson is a big thinker and big artist. Using a small range of musical textures, she strikes an eerie mood that enables the lightest lyrics to generate large feelings. You got this during the seemingly lighthearted song “Underwear Gods,” about the larger-than-life underwear billboards in New York City. Its apparent light lyrics grew lofty as the electronics increased its haunting echoes.
Some of her songs hardly move forward; sometimes motion stops briefly, and you sit in silence momentarily, like white space on a canvas.
“Out of the Heart” was by far the most melodic, even pretty, and one of the few times the entire four-piece band — keyboards, electric bass and a viola — all played.
An accordion gave “Strange Perfume” a somewhat organic sound; the lumbering tune leaned forward like something you might hear on the radio, though at 2 a.m. on a public station.
Anderson is a distant perfomer. You don’t get to know her one bit during the “Homeland” show outside her performance. She stayed in her role and never strayed, even introducing the band through her male-vocal device. She didn’t say “hello” to the audience, didn’t even smile out of character. She let you in only through her art.