Melissa Etheridge returns to Belly Up Aspen on Thursday
After 26 years away from Aspen, Melissa Etheridge made her debut at Belly Up in 2015. The extended time away from the mountain town scene resulted partly from her tendency to play bigger venues than we have here. And partly, it was because – for a stretch in the mid-1990s – Etheridge boycotted performing in Colorado at all.
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 granting marriage equality in 2015.
Etheridge, who came out publicly in 1993 and helped lay the groundwork for moving the culture toward a 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 before her 2015 set at Belly Up. “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, who will headline Belly Up on Thursday, 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.
Though Etheridge mostly plays large theaters and festivals, she said, playing an intimate club like Belly Up is a treat.
“I like playing the small places like Aspen, where I get to show off my guitar and piano and all,” she said.
Her latest album is 2016’s “MEmphis Rock and Soul,” a bluesy covers album paying tribute to Stax records giants like Otis Redding and Albert King.
Her newest album of originals, “This is M.E.,” was released in 2015. The adventurous record – her first independent release – showcased 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. (This week’s Aspen concert is billed “The Rock Show”).
Etheridge, now 57, shook up her creative habits for the 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, of course, she doesn’t hold back on her iconic 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.”