Taking lead on guitar helped Etheridge reconnect

In her 25-year career, Melissa Etheridge has recorded and performed with some powerhouse lead guitar
Melissa Etheridge and her band come to the Palace Theatre on Friday night.
Melissa Etheridge and her band come to the Palace Theatre on Friday night.

In her 25-year career, Melissa Etheridge has recorded and performed with some powerhouse lead guitarists, including Philip Sayce, Mark Goldenberg, John Shanks and, for the past two years, Peter Thorn.

On her 12th studio album, “4th Street Feeling” released in September, the Leavenworth, Kan.-born singer-songwriter decided to tackle all the guitar parts herself, along with piano, keyboard and for the first time on one of her records, the banjitar — a banjo with a guitar neck. The decision to do this grew out of Etheridge’s last few years of touring, during which she’s taken on more and more lead guitar duties.

“It was a big boost in my self-confidence,” Etheridge said recently from a tour stop in Atlantic City, N.J. “It’s come from the last couple years on stage, really daring to finally take that on myself, and I’m really happy with that.”

Melissa Etheridge

Where: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany

When: 8 p.m. Friday

How Much: $103, $78, $58, $38

More Info: 465-3334, www.palacealbany.com

Settled down

Shades of all the guitarists she’s played with over the years can be heard in her playing on the album, which harks back to her classic roots rock sound found on such records as her 1993 breakthrough “Yes I Am” and her self-titled 1988 debut.

“Totally, totally; it’s been just a study of that — John Shanks, Philip Sayce, Mark Goldenberg, and now Peter Thorn for the past two years,” Etheridge said.

“He’s just the most talented guitar player, with the least amount of ego — he was a teacher. I’ve never been with a guitar player who was so supportive of my work, helping me understand the equipment, the best amps and pedals and guitars, what sounds best. He just walked me through it. And playing lead is so different than the acoustic rhythm way I’ve been playing; I had to really settle down. So that’s what you get — me a little bit more settled down.”

That doesn’t mean Etheridge has forgotten how to rock — “4th Street Feeling” features some of her hardest-edged songwriting in recent years, after the more staid “Fearless Love” in 2010. She’s currently on the first leg of touring behind the record, which began when the album was released — she heads to the Palace Theatre in Albany on Friday night with full band in tow. Fans can expect much more lead guitar from Etheridge at the shows, mirroring the album.

“I have Peter there too, so we do some great playing together,” Etheridge said. “But I get to play a lot of lead; it’s really fun. I get to be a rock star.”

Responding to the album

Etheridge toured throughout the summer but did not bring out any new songs, instead focusing on her back catalog to prepare for this tour. She’s been breaking out the new songs steadily, seeing what sticks with audiences, and so far the reaction has been strong.

“ ‘4th Street Feeling,’ the song itself, in particular — if they don’t know the album, that’s usually a surprise, and I hear reactions during the song,” Etheridge said. “It’s fun; when they first hear the lyrics — whenever I sing, ‘I’ve been aching to slip an eight-track on again,’ I hear people, like, ‘Aw’ — just that memory that comes up from the first time they hear that. But they’ve responded really well to the whole album.”

The record began as an attempt to strip the songs down to a more accurate representation of how Etheridge sounds onstage. In the process, she found herself reconnecting with early inspirations such as Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen.

“It started sort of with a want to — musically, I wanted to just do what I do best,” Etheridge said. “So guitars, drums, bass and me singing — OK, there you go. I play some harmonica and a little keyboard, piano — I just wanted to do what I do. So it started with that, and I found that by doing that, it expanded back to my formative years, when I listened to music 24 hours a day, all my influences. I started remembering that, and even though it wasn’t my goal to make sort of a reminiscent album, it became that.”

As with her previous albums, the record is quite personal — there are shades of her recent breakup, in 2010, with actress Tammy Lynn Michaels, although its not a heavy breakup album the way that 2001’s “Skin” was. For her, the lyrics provide a catalyst for dealing with emotions, especially when she performs the songs live.

“The older songs, no, that doesn’t affect it at all — those stories are done,” Etheridge said. “I worked through them, so I don’t even have to charge on them anymore — so it’s fun to play ‘I’m the Only One’ and have everyone in the audience pump their fists; that’s great and powerful. The new ones, they are doing their job, which is to be a catharsis. So they don’t hurt me, they actually help — they get rid of the emotion, so it’s good stuff.”

Fascinated with politics

Etheridge has long been active in politics and gay and lesbian rights — she came out as a lesbian in 1993. In 2007, she won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, for “I Need to Wake Up” from Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

While nothing on “4th Street Feeling” is overtly political, with the U.S. presidential election fast approaching politics are weighing on Etheridge’s mind this year.

“I’ve journeyed so far with our American politics — I’m in love with American democracy and the Constitution, and I think our government is the greatest form of government on the planet,” Etheridge said.

“I also think it challenges us to face the underbelly of capitalism, and what comes out of this — what I believe has happened — is that there’s not that much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans except the social issues we all scream about. I think that when it comes to multi-national corporations, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Republican or Democratic agenda, and moving forward, I hope we all wake up soon and start voting with our dollars. There’s a lot more going on here other than gay rights. . . . Our country’s kind of been overrun right now.”

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