Sunday, April 17, 2016

What To Expect At A Heather Nova Concert (April 11, 2016 - Ann Arbor, MI)

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The Good: Amazing lyrics, Great voice, Inexpensive, Improvs/stories, Raw onstage charisma
The Bad: Technical difficulties, Usual live issues
The Basics: After eighteen years, I manage to see Heather Nova in concert again; this time with some very awesome moments and memories.

There is a critical mass for musical artists who have long careers and that is the concept that live performances are always going to let some of their fans down. The truth is, the more prolific a musical artist is, the more their fans fall in love with specific works and it becomes difficult for the artist to find a well-rounded setlist that will please their die-hard fans. This is certainly the case with Heather Nova, an artist that most music aficionados have written off because her popular peak hit in the late 1990s. Despite radio airplay with the single "Walk This World" and garnering a following of people who fell in love with "Heart And Shoulder" because it appeared on Dawson's Creek, Heather Nova is often written off as a "one-hit wonder" because her commercial success in the United States has never rivaled her creative successes as a musical artist. Now, with nine studio albums, an EP of unique songs, and three live albums (one of which has songs not found elsewhere!), Heather Nova is incredibly hard to write off and she is (finally!) touring in the United States again!

I saw Heather Nova perform on April 11, 2016 at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan and it was a big deal for me. My wife purchased the ticket for me and sent me on my way while she remained home with our unruly animals, as an anniversary gift (the day before was our seven year wedding anniversary!). I saw Heather Nova perform once before. Back in 1998, at the Lilith Fair in Canandaigua, New York, I was super-excited to see Heather Nova. Despite being a recent college graduate, I had never once been to a musical concert (save concerts I was dragged to as a young child by my father), and while some people were at the concert for the main stage artists, like Bonnie Raitt, Sarah McLachlan, and Natalie Merchant, I was there because Heather Nova was performing. It was a big deal for me at the time because, after her set, Nova went to the Tower Records tent and was signing autographs. Despite suffering from a massive stutter at the time, butterflies in my stomach and a huge case of hero worship, I met Heather Nova, told her the influence "London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)" had on me (as best I could with my stutter) and got her autograph. It was the start of a pretty memorable weekend for me. So, I've been waiting for years to see her in concert again. It was a pretty awesome gift for my wife to give me for our anniversary and, despite me being a true fan who might seem like someone who would be hard to make happy, it was a truly magical evening.

Heather Nova's current tour seems to be a great reminder to her fans about the awkward balance an artist of her magnitude has. Nova is touring in the United States to promote her latest album, the PledgeMusic funded The Way It Feels (reviewed here!) and her setlist juggled new material and works from her two most commercially-successful albums (in the U.S.), Oyster and Siren. Redbird and The Jasmine Flower are completely neglected (so is Glowstars, but given that was pre-Oyster, that is less surprising), but that is the crux of the problem for an artist as prolific as Nova; the fans who will show up for a live performance are likely already to know about and own the newest album and have obscure favorites from some of the albums that never achieved commercial success or airplay. Despite the lack of Redbird and The Jasmine Flower songs and songs from South being under-represented, Nova managed to find an amazing balance between her newest works and the "old favorites" of fans.

The Heather Nova concert was my first time in Ann Arbor, so I arrived early and staked out the venue, as well as tried to guess where Nova might go pre-show to try to run into her and get my cover art signed (I was wrong!). Ann Arbor is a cute city bustling downtown with food co-ops and tea rooms and a lot of wonderful places to eat. The Ark, where Nova was performing, had a line in front of it over an hour before the show, with most of those there at that point waiting to get into the VIP reception before the show (tickets were sold out before I could get any). So, I waited in the freezing cold with other Heather Nova fans - some of whom were from Indiana - and we talked about our experiences with her music, our crappy Governors (Indiana's codified discrimination, Michigan's systematically poisoned poor citizens to save money in the budget on clean drinking water), and the venue. I met a woman in line who had been to the Ark many, many times and advised me on where to sit.

When the doors were opened for the eight o'clock show - at 7:36 (! grr, it was that cold, so we were checking our watches and phones that much!) - we were escorted to the upstairs auditorium. I sat between the wife and the girlfriend of two men who had gotten in on the V.I.P. experience and I found myself literally eight feet away from where Heather Nova would later be singing, with a completely unobstructed view. I thanked the wife for advising on the seats and she asked where my wife was. My answer got me onto a conversation with the girlfriend about Siberian Huskys (we both have them; she had a sitter for hers, mine necessitated my wife staying home with ours!). The Ark had seating for four hundred people and if there were one hundred people there for Heather Nova, I would be surprised. The result was a very intimate concert experience.

Shortly after eight o'clock, the concert began with Chris Riffle opening for Heather Nova. Riffle is a singer-songwriter from New York City and I'm unsure how Nova or her tour manager decided on him for her opening act. Riffle has a lot energy, but he did not seem overly comfortable on-stage (or, perhaps, he just has not developed a "performing persona" to get him away from the rawness of the experiences he is singing about). Riffle's opening led him to reveal that with the lighting, he could not see any of us, so I instantly felt better about the potential of not making an ass of myself drooling over Heather Nova, or grinning like an idiot over her entire set. Because I never had any prior experiences with Christ Riffle's works before that night, I found myself listening to him and his performance in a very analytical way (my wife forbade me to take notes on the Heather Nova concert, insisting I go and enjoy it!). As Riffle completed his set, a strange melancholy filled me; I listened to his works with an intellectual detachment and I became terrified for the time between his last song and Nova appearing on stage that I could no longer simply *enjoy* anything.

My anhedonia passed the moment Heather Nova began singing. Bathed in light from stage lights with pink and blue gels, Heather Nova stepped up to a jasmine flower covered microphone after her accompanist, Arnulf Lindner (there is very much something for the ladies at a Heather Nova at her current concerts!) preceded her to the stage. She was wearing a simple black tank top and pants accented by sequins (or something else sparkly) and jewelry that was instantly evocative of her birds from her artwork from her earliest EPs.

It takes a pretty remarkable artist to instantly enchant an audience with a new song. I recall, very vividly, listening to The Way It Feels the very first time. When Nova got to the first refrain of "Treehouse" - "Treehouse in the trees" - I literally winced (where else would a treehouse be?!). But live, the passion of Nova infuses from the opening lines "Afternoon, heavy scented . . ." to her belting out "When you love / Then you can't / Keep your heart from breaking / Holding on / Holding on / But I can't keep the tree from shaking" ("Treehouse") it was virtually impossible not to get chills all up and down one's arms. Accompanied on guitar and cello by Heather Nova instantly establishes a presence that is magnetic. I was sitting close enough to the stage to see the set list on the floor of the stage, so I was somewhat giddy over the idea that I would hear Nova performing the song I requested online, but after the opening act, I honestly thought that perhaps I had built the experience up too much for it to live up to expectations.

I had not over-estimated the impact of seeing Heather Nova perform live. Live, the passion and unedited vocal talent of Heather Nova is so profound that she manages to captivate bored spouses of Heather Nova fans and remind her fans just why they fell in love with Nova and her works. Seriously, one of the men who had been a part of the V.I.P. experience got up twice during the show and was checking his phone every three songs; his girlfriend did not move from her seat and her eyes were glued on Nova and Lindner. And the mixed metaphors of "The Archeologist" and the unclear metaphor in "Girl On The Mountain" become irrelevant when Nova is giving them her all with passion in her voice and a stage performance that is electric - even though most of the evening found her simply standing behind her microphone.

The blend of new works and classic Heather Nova for the first half of the concert turned out to be an absolutely brilliant arrangement. Nova's voice and presence gives a credibility to the works that lack the inherent greatness (it all starts with lyrics!) of some of her prior works; those faults disappear with her raw on-stage charisma.

While Chris Riffle might have been an unclear opening act for Heather Nova, Arnulf Lindner is a clear, amazing accompanist for Nova. Lindner has an impressive vocal range. Nova has incredible vocal range, but when she hits her high soprano notes, Lindner offers contrast in the lower registers or harmonizes - shockingly good - as an alto. The most impressive musical moment between Nova and Lindner at the Ann Arbor concert came on "Winterblue." "Winterblue" was the song that both Nova and Lindner offered the most improvisation for. Nova added a few additional riffs and Lindner was given the chance to do a piano solo. The improvisation was musically interesting and it grabbed the ear in a very complimentary way. But the magic was that when Nova leapt back in with her vocals it came at the organic end to Lindner's improv and the seamless transition occurred without even a look between them. Perhaps before the show, Nova said, "I will give you twenty-two seconds of improve in 'Winterblue,' not a second more! Go wild!" and he managed to perfectly conform. Regardless of whatever prior communications there were between the two beforehand, watching them both from the closest possible position, it looked like they had an expert back and forth where their artistic expression and performances blended with apparent effortlessness. Lindner's vocal accompaniment on "Paper Cup" is haunting to hear harmonizing with Nova's siren-like soprano (sue me, she named Siren well!).

As for Heather Nova, the second-most interesting moment of the night for me came as Nova and Lindner performed "The Archaeologist." Nova was playing a ukulele and it either was not connected or it was not loud enough for her to hear over Lindner's piano. While I, like Lindner, could have sworn I heard it for a few strums at least, Nova could not. Those watching Nova could tell that she was not hearing it and there was a flash of frustration on her face. In that moment, I became utterly fascinated; I once was at a Sophie B. Hawkins concert at a venue where she (literally) blew the fuses each time she strummed her electric guitar and she stopped the show, we waited ten minutes in the heat for the techs to rewire and retry and she'd try again. It happened at least three times and Hawkins refused to keep playing until the problem was fixed, despite the fact that everyone who was there appeared very able to hear her and an acoustic rendition could have been interesting. Nova's reaction was entirely different. There was a moment of frustration on her face, but then it was very quickly replaced with one of resolve. Nova took her hands off her uke and started singing more forthrightly, more passionately. Her eyes took on a quality that seemed to scream, "dare me not to enchant you with my voice!" For those who ever wonder "what ever happened to Heather Nova," the answer is "she's still here and she's a professional of the highest order who will spellbind you if you were only paying attention!" That moment where Nova revealed her professionalism and class was strangely electrifying and seeing someone become the embodiment of resolve is incredible when it yields such impressive results.

I wrote that that moment where Nova threw her hands up and put her voice and eyes into "The Archaeologist" was the second most interesting moment of the pretty incredible night. The most amazing moment was one that gave me an uncommon feeling of connection with the musical artist. That was the penultimate song of the regular set.

Being able to see her set list, from the moment her assistant placed it on the floor within my sightline, I knew "Truth And Bone" was coming and I knew when it would be performed. In fact, when the boyfriend sitting just ahead of me (the layout of The Ark allowed for tables to be right up against the stage; he was at the table, I was between the two tables, just behind the table, so he was slightly ahead and askew of me), began singing along with one of Nova's songs, fist-pumping and stomping on the stage (how Nova and Lindner were not disrupted by him - or maybe he was stomping on beat during "London Rain" - is a mystery to me), I came very close to warning him that if he pulled that shit during "Truth And Bone," we'd have a problem! (Fortunately, I did not have to resort of barbarian threats; he fell into a stupor on "Fool For You.") The high point of the night was "Truth And Bone."

Having now had the opportunity to see set lists from other performances Nova has done on her (too-brief) U.S. tour, I was surprised to see how constant her performance line-up is. In fact, all that differed between the Ann Arbor show and at least five of her other stops was that "Heart And Shoulder" was swapped out for "Truth And Bone" in Ann Arbor. This makes me especially happy for how this came to be. I love "Heart And Shoulder" as much as the next Heather Nova (or Dawson's Creek) fan, but on the (many) live recordings Nova has released publicly and to her fans, "Heart And Shoulder" has become a staple, much like "Maybe An Angel" used to be. "Heart And Shoulder" is not a song her fans have not already heard with every (conceivable) permutation (I'm still open to being surprised, though and I was surprised in Ann Arbor by how close Nova came to making "London Rain" into a country song!). But, for Ann Arbor, "Heart And Shoulder" was replaced with "Truth And Bone" and that is because of me and Heather Nova's awesome responsiveness.

When Nova's U.S. tour was first announced, I was psyched to see that - of all the places she would be, and there were too few! - she would be performing about three hours away from where I live. I knew Ann Arbor was the most likely place I would see Nova (though, I have family in Rochester, New York, and if the money had come in in time, I might have shelled out the money to travel to Albany, NY to see her and have the V.I.P. experience) and when she announced that she would be recording the shows and making them available to her fans, I sent her a message on Facebook. I asked Nova if she might offer something akin to a "Season Pass" (like with video games) where fans could get recordings from her entire tour for a discounted price. And I said that I would entirely liquefy to see her perform "Truth And Bone" in Ann Arbor. So, as the night wound down, from being cold to eager to disappointed to enchanted, I was anticipating Nova's penultimate song.

Then she introduced it. I have never been so glad for a gift from my wife than I was in the moment when, after saying she was performing the next song for someone who had asked for it on Facebook, Nova asked, "Do you know who you are?" Nova could not remember my name (no big deal, no reason she should!) and she could not quite remember what I said I would do if she performed the song (she thought "eat my hat" or "melt") (and hey, neither could I! In the shock of the moment as she introduced the song, referencing my request, I conceded and shouted back "Yes!" [I knew who I was] and [in response to "What was it you said you would do?"] "Melt completely!" [not quite "liquefy!"]), but she told me that my message had reached her and she was playing the song because I had asked for it (in a timely fashion!). It takes a pretty amazing artist to care about a fan request like that and then deliver. It sounds simple, but after a dozen shows with remarkably similar setlists, I can understand how shaking things up might really mess an artist (and her accompanist) up.

But then there was the execution. People who pay for Heather Nova's live recording from the Ann Arbor show will be missing something incredible. When Heather Nova sang "Truth And Bone," she sang it with passion and presence that was heartwrenching and beautiful. I was tearing up almost instantly, but I could clearly see Nova's eyes as she sang; expressive and full of passion and vulnerability and that only made me cry more. Heather Nova must have performed "Truth And Bone" a thousand times (at least!) before that night and yet, when she sang it in Ann Arbor, you would have thought that she had just written the song, she sang it with such emotion and on-stage presence. My request aside, the execution of "Truth And Bone" live by Heather Nova is the perfect reminder of why live performances are so important and so different as artistic works from studio recordings.

And when it was done, I could not stand to give her the standing ovation I wanted to. I could barely applaud, choke out and project my voice to say "thank you" (she graciously nodded acknowledgement!) and wipe my tears away. And the cello work Arnulf Lindner did on it cannot go unacknowledged. Lindner did not provide backing vocals on the song, but his cello sang with Nova's voice wonderfully.

Like all live performances, the Ann Arbor show was not without technical issues. Drunk boyfriend (that's what my wife instantly assumed), the ukulele not working right away, a vocal crack trying to hit a note I never in my life could on "Island" (and, hell, for an artist of such incredible range and lung capacity, the bar would be set high with five vocal imperfections, so one is pretty much a testament to Nova's unbridled talent!), these are all things that happen when music is performed live. There was something weird about "Sugar" (one of Nova's darker songs about trauma) capping off the night as the second encore, but - in all - the night was absolutely amazing.

After the show, Nova briefly met with her fans to sign albums and memorabilia. Heather Nova is a class act and gracing her fans with even a short autograph session is very cool of her. The Ark is a smaller venue and there was not much of a crowd, so Nova had an easy time getting through her line. The Ann Arbor concert was an amazing reminder of the essential humanity of the artists we idolize. I felt glad that I was prepared - one of the photos that someone had posted to Nova's Facebook page from a prior concert featured a glowing fan and Nova looking distinctly uncomfortable - and the pictures people were getting with her after the show she did not look overly comfortable in. Nova was a professional and a trooper the whole night, but anyone who could read basic body language could tell she was not excited to come out after the show to sign (hell, she had been on her feet for two hours prior, so I can absolutely understand it!). She did come, though, and she signed stuff for other people, took some photos and signed my piece (and smudged it, but hey, that makes autographs authentic sometimes!). Whether it was a function of being earlier in her career before or later in the night and further along the tour schedule this time, there was a marked difference between my first and second direct interactions with Heather Nova. After observing that the Sharpie I brought to get my cover art signed was the same as the one in her hand, I thanked her profusely for performing "Truth And Bone." She said "You're welcome" and smiled at me, but then it was onto the next person. It's a noticeable difference between how engaged she was at Lilith Fair, but all it really robbed me of was the ability to take her time to tell her about how she has released an album at every major stage of my adult life that seems to mirror exactly where I was on my emotional journey at the time - something she either has heard hundreds of times before, could not possible explore in a real conversation at such a venue or would be of minimal interest to her anyway (our lives are always far more interesting to us than to other people!).

So, at the end of it, it was an absolutely incredible experience. Heather Nova offered insight into how she wrote a couple of the new songs, she had good banter with Arnulf, and she was absolutely captivating as she sang and played her guitar/ukulele/whatever the hell that thing was she was blowing into at the end of "Moon River Days" (I think!). Heather Nova reminds anyone who will listen just how incredible an authentic human voice with range can be when it is expressively performing insightfully-written lyrics and accompanied by someone who clearly is in the same zone as her. Hopefully, it will not be another eighteen years before Nova returns to touring in the United States, but if it is that long, I know exactly where I will be for her next U.S. tour.

And for those who live on the West Coast, there are still a few concerts left she is performing in the days ahead; you have the rare opportunity to have as transcendent an experience!

For other Heather Nova album reviews, please be sure to check out:
These Walls
Live From The Milky Way
The Sorrowjoy (Audio Version)
The Jasmine Flower
300 Days At Sea
Live In Cologne 2/26/2014
Live In Leuven 12/10/10
Live In Eindhoven 2011

For other reviews of live music, please be sure to visit my Travel And Theater Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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