Melissa Etheridge, from Colorado boycott to Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
Who: Melissa Etheridge
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Tonight, 9 p.m.
How much: $95 GA; $295 reserved
Melissa Etheridge hasn’t played Aspen since 1989. Partly, that’s because she tends to play bigger venues than the Belly Up, where she performs tonight. And partly, that’s because for a stretch in the mid-1990s Etheridge boycotted performing in Colorado.
At the peak of her fame, when her 1993 breakthrough album “Yes I Am” was topping the charts, Etheridge began boycotting Colorado over the state’s passage of Amendment 2, which barred cities and counties from recognizing gays as a protected class. Public protest of the law from Coloradans and from public figures like Etheridge coincided with legal challenges that eventually brought it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was deemed unconstitutional in 1996. That decision set the stage for subsequent Supreme Court cases affirming gay rights and eventually – earlier this year – granting gays the right to marry.
Etheridge, who came out publicly in 1993 and helped lay the groundwork for moving the culture toward today’s more accepting era, saw equal rights as inevitable and saw actions like the Colorado boycott as a means to an end.
“I remember saying 20 years ago, ‘I think in 20 years it will be all legal everywhere.’ And people went ‘Oh, really?’” she recalled recently from a tour stop in Bend, Oregon. “I could see that path, that it’s just a misunderstanding. The biggest change is in the LGBT community, in the people that decided to come out. That helped our society see that, ‘Oh, there are gay people in my community, in my family.’ That’s what changed. We made it a culture where people could come out. And now that diversity works.”
The singer-songwriter still hears from people who felt free to come out due to her public and proud stance as a gay woman in that less accepting time.
“To this day, people come up to me and say, ‘You were such an inspiration,’ ‘You saved my life,’ all those things,” she said.
These days, Etheridge is putting much of her activist energy into the marijuana legalization movement, in which she sees parallels to the fight for gay rights.
“Much like the marriage equality movement, it takes people coming out and saying, ‘Yes, I am a functioning member of society and cannabis is my choice,’” she said. “Colorado has done that. I’m looking forward to California legalizing it recreationally and then moving into more of a wellness culture.”
On her run through Colorado – which also includes stops in Denver and Boulder – Etheridge is meeting with people who led the legalization campaign here, in the hopes of replicating their success in California.
Etheridge co-headlined a July tour with Blondie at festivals and large theaters, and is now at the beginning a four-month North American solo tour in more intimate settings like Belly Up.
“I like playing the small places like Aspen, where I get to show off my guitar and piano and all,” she said.
Transitioning from crowds in the thousands – a June show at Fair St. Louis brought out 20,000 – to a few hundred in clubs is a welcome change for the singer-songwriter.
“Blondie and I are having so much fun, but the other night I went, ‘God, I can’t wait to get back to a little theater by myself with my songs,’” Etheridge said. “But then when I’m by myself I’m saying, ‘I can’t wait to get back to 7,000 people.’ I’m doing both and it’s the best of both worlds.”
Her newest album, “This is M.E.,” was released in September. The adventurous new record – her first independent release – showcases the veteran Grammy winner shaking off her familiar rootsy trappings for harder sounds, rocking out on the single “Monster” and including touches of hip-hop from producers Jerry Wonda and RoccStar.
Etheridge, now 54, shook up her creative habits for the new album.
“I looked around and felt like I’d plateaued,” she said. “I wasn’t going up, I wasn’t going down. I was just still and I don’t like that.”
She changed her management, left her career-long label, Island, and started fresh.
“I’ve always wanted to go so far out of the box that people would go ‘What!?” she said. “So I wanted to find someone who would work with me and bring me there. Finally that brought me RoccStar, who is this young crazy rapper guy.”
The first day in the studio with RoccStar – best known for producing R&B hits by Chris Brown and J.Lo – resulted in the song “Ain’t That Bad” and a rejuvenated Etheridge.
In the solo gigs, she’s been playing a handful of tracks from the new record, along with a selection of songs from her 13 album catalog and, of course, hits like “Come to My Window,” “I’m the Only One” and “I Need to Wake Up.”
“I always do the hits,” she said. “There’s nothing like starting ‘Come to My Window’ and seeing everybody singing.”
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