Guitarist Willie Porter saves the crowd from Michelle Shocked’s erratic performance
An interesting musical experiment took place in Chico recently when two dissimilar acts that had not been touring together crossed paths at the stately El Rey Theatre.
The show, which comprised a rousing performance by laid-back acoustic magician Willy Porter, and a less-than-rousing performance by feisty Texas trailblazer Michelle Shocked, was an overall winner.
The charismatic Porter opened the North Valley Productions double bill, and all three major ingredients of his solo act—guitar dexterity, vocal delivery and satirical wit—were in superior form. Porter also incorporated plenty of improvisation (folk-rap if you will) that included phrases and ideas he solicited from the audience. One anecdote that resonated with the crowd was a hilarious tale of teen-dom that included Yukon Jack, corndogs and a Tilt-a-Whirl ride, and how the three don’t mix.
But Porter’s smooth performance didn’t foreshadow what followed. Shocked and her band seemed to, shall we say, “shock” many of the genteel acoustic music fans in the house. Maybe they were expecting a mellow folk singer, not aware her outspoken past included being a punk rocker, arrests for political activism, successfully suing Mercury Records for contract-slavery practices, a rape, strong religious beliefs that led to the 2007 album ToHeavenURide and the forthcoming Soul of My Soul, and even a short stint in a mental hospital that included forced shock therapy that led to her stage name.
Still, even allowing the edgy Shocked the latitude she deserves, her El Rey performance was erratic and a bit off-kilter. Her set included tedious confessional stories that overshadowed several songs, including fan favorites “Anchorage” and “Strawberry Jam.” In addition, excessive, ill-timed screams and shrieks made the crowd cringe rather than get fired up.
To be fair, a few songs in which Shocked and her lead guitarist traded twangy blues-rock riffs were strong, and a couple of new ballads, “Liquid Prayer” and “Other People,” were poignant and showed that her voice is still strong.
But for the most part Shocked’s set—which also included songs from her celebrated 1988 album, Short Sharp Shocked, including “Graffiti Limbo,” “When I Grow Up” and “Memories of East Texas"—was uneven and unfulfilling. And during one uncomfortably self-indulgent segment, Shocked called her boyfriend on her phone to express her love, then held the phone up to the mic so we could all hear that yes, he loved her, too.
Thankfully, Porter re-energized the crowd during Shocked’s set, to help lead an excellent performance of The Band classic “The Weight.”