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Catching up with Chely Wright

Out country singer returns to region for concert with Amy Ray

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Chely Wright, gay news, Washington Blade

Chely Wright says she was ecstatic to hear her new album compared to classics by Carole King and Roseanne Cash. (Photo courtesy Wright)

Chely Wright and Amy Ray
 
Monday, Nov. 28
 
7:30 p.m.
 
The Birchmere
 
3701 Mount Vernon Ave.
 
Alexandria, Va.
 
$29.50

It’s been six years since Chely Wright, a country singer known for hits like “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female,” came out as a lesbian.

Her last album was 2010’s “Lifted Off the Ground,” which coincided with her coming out. Since then she’s gotten married, gave birth to twin boys and has spoken out for LGBT rights.

Now that her life has settled, Wright is back to the business of releasing music and touring. Her eighth album “I Am the Rain” was released in September and she plays the Birchmere on Monday, Nov. 28 in a co-headlining show with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls.

The always-loquacious Wright darts around to many topics during a Tuesday afternoon phone chat.

On touring with Ray:  “Amy and Emily knew before I came out that I was coming out and they were incredibly supportive. … I was so pleased and honored that they recorded a song I had written called ‘It Really Is a Wonderful Life’ and asked me to come on stage at a couple of their shows with them. Any time an artist can get in front of an Indigo Girls audience, which is a highly informed, highly evolved, very loyal fan base, I said, ‘You betcha.’”

On losing fans by coming out: “You know, it’s hard to tell. Of course I lost some fans, but I also gained some, right? There have been a couple hundred new ones supporting me and coming to my shows that may not have known me before. It’s kind of a wash.”

On being a fan-friendly artist:  “I think fans enjoy it, but I think I enjoy it nearly as much as they have. It’s just what makes country music special and it’s just part of who I am. Just like being an Americana artist and less commercial, I guess that’s something I’m always going to do.”

On possibly singing with Ray: “(The tour) didn’t sneak up on us, but we didn’t really have the time to get something together to come up with what would make sense to collaborate on, so hopefully as the tour goes on we can work something out. I love to sing harmony so hopefully she’ll let me sing harmony with her on a couple songs.”

On her set: “I’ve just been focusing on the new music and then a couple of the hits, because I really wanted to, selfishly, play this new music and bounce it out there. As a live performer, there’s nothing more gratifying than playing new music and seeing the response.”

On coming out strategically: “I wanted to come out in a smart, productive way. I wanted to use my voice in a way that kinda moved the needle. I know a lot of people have been touched or comforted by my book, my movie or my coming out or they’ve been … well, enlightened by it. Whether they were a person who thought they never knew and loved a gay person and then their favorite country artist comes out, well if that’s what got them to read my book or watch “Wish Me Away,” well that’s a mission accomplished.”

On her new album: “When you listen to it as a body of work with my older records, it doesn’t seem so different like, ‘Oh my God, that doesn’t even sound like her.’ I’ve said this before, but if ‘Lifted Off The Ground’ was steps away from ‘The Metropolitan Hotel,’ then ‘I Am The Rain’ is a marathon away from ‘Lifted Off The Ground.’”

On working with producer Joe Henry: “When one is lucky is enough to have Joe Henry pirate the ship, an artist — a smart artist — will get out of the way and let Joe Henry do what he was hired to do. One of the multitude of skills Joe brings to the table is his sensibility about which songs should be recorded. Obviously, it’s my record, but his vision for it was critically important or I would’ve just produced it myself. It’s like a ghost artist — some books have a ghost writer, but he’s like a ghost collaborator, but we call him producer. I’ve often said, he’s the rising tide that lifts all ships so he just makes you better and more vulnerable and more emotional and more triumphant. That’s the thing that Joe does that nobody else that I know of does.”

On duetting with Emmylou Harris: “That song, just to hear Emmylou Harris singing notes and words that I authored and composed just kind of blows me away and she did it so beautifully. She said when she was recording that, ‘I just want to be where Chely is emotionally,’ and boy, did she.”

On belonging: “I had high hopes that the gay community would have a place for me and that the straight community would have a place for me and the country music would have a place for me. I don’t know if the country music industry has acknowledged that they have a place for me, but they do have a place for me because I claimed it. I think what I was feeling that day when I was begging for a couple of different groups to validate me me is that looking at it now I realize the power I had that I didn’t know I had. I don’t need a group to grant me entrance. I, by the nature of who I am, I have my entry.”

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Music & Concerts

Washington Arts Ensemble to host immersive concert

Creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture

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The Washington Arts Ensemble will host an immersive concert experience on Saturday, June 18 at 7 p.m. at Dupont Underground.

This concert will show how distinct genres influence pop culture and articulate the commonality between classical, jazz, and electronic music while creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture.

Some of the works that will be performed include “Switched-On Bach selections” by Wendy Carlos, “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals by Camile Saint-Saens, among other works.

Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Washington Arts Ensemble’s website

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Music & Concerts

John Levengood releases anthem “Say Gay!” to protest discrimination

Slated to perform new song at 2022 Capital Pride Festival in June

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Recording artist John Levengood’s latest song ‘Say Gay!’ is out Friday. (Photo courtesy Levengood)

“Say gay! Say gay! Say gay!
“Say what? Say what?
“One little law won’t shut us up!”

Slated for digital release this Friday, recording artist John Levengood’s latest song “Say Gay!” confronts anti-LGBTQ legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law by encouraging others to “profess their queerness loudly, proudly, and never in the shadows,” Levengood said in a press release shared with the Blade on Tuesday.

On June 12, Levengood is set to perform the song’s live debut at the 2022 Capital Pride Festival in Washington, D.C., to streets teeming with community members, food trucks, and local vendors, according to the press release.

“The rise in oppressive legislation and proposals have many in the LGBTQ+ community alarmed,” the press release says. Levengood “hopes this song can be used as a metaphorical weapon to blast holes in the argument that teaching children about acceptance and diversity is more appropriate at home than school.”

The bill, enacted by the Florida Legislature earlier this year but not yet in force, would limit teachers’ ability to teach LGBTQ topics in some school settings and obligate school officials to disclose students’ sexual orientation and gender identity to their parents upon request.

A D.C. resident himself, Levengood currently works over the weekends as resident host and karaoke emcee at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va., an LGBTQ bar and restaurant.

Levengood is no stranger to the music scene, in 2013 moving through multiple rounds of auditions for the third season of “The X Factor” before coming up short of formally appearing on the show, according to the release.

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia, the press release added that music has been an outlet for Levengood to express himself from an early age. The new song marks his seventh musical release.

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Music & Concerts

Tori Amos spins magic at Sunday night D.C.-area concert

First show in the area since ’17 finds Gen X icon vocally subdued but musically energized

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As with many veteran rock stars, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on how hot or cold Tori Amos’s 30-year-old solo career is at the moment. It sometimes seems like she’s moving past the take-her-for-granted-because-she’s-never-away-for-long phase, and there certainly was that sense in the air Sunday night for her D.C.-area stop of her current “Ocean to Ocean Tour,” her first show here since 2017, which, with COVID, feels like a lifetime ago.

But there are also signs that it’s never been chillier for Amos in the overall pop culture landscape. It’s been a decade since she charted a single on any chart and there were no videos or singles from her “Ocean to Ocean” album last fall. It landed just outside the top 100 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album sales chart altogether, a new low that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago when her “regular” (i.e. non-specialty/concept) albums were almost guaranteed a top 10 debut. 

The slide has been swift, too: 2014’s “Unrepentant Geraldines” hit No. 7, the next album (2017’s polarizing “Native Invader”) only made it to 39, then came “Ocean’s” thud at no. 104. There’s a lot you could point to to explain it — streaming, her aging Gen X fan base, the endless undulations of the music industry itself — but in some ways it has started to feel like she’s getting less and less return on her artistic dollar than one would expect. 

Yeah, that always happens with veteran female pop stars once they hit their 50s and beyond, but Amos and her small but mighty fan base, who for decades exhibited a devotion of Grateful Dead-like proportions, outran the trend for so long, to see it finally catching up is a bit bewildering.

But then you go hear her live at a decent-size venue like The Theater at MGM National Harbor (which seats 3,000 and was about 97 percent full), and it feels nearly like old times. Sure, some of the excitement was just that we’re all gagging at being at concerts at all and having mask restrictions and vaccine requirements paused, but there was an electricity that, while mellower than it was at Amos concerts in the ’90s, still felt magical. I’ve never in my life seen so long a line for the merch table.

The concert itself was, for the most part, sublime. It was the first time since 2009 she’s toured with a band and while her solo shows are great too, there was pent-up yearning to hear her unleash full-on with a solid rhythm section (Jon Evans on bass, Ash Soan on drums) again. Beat-heavy songs like “Raspberry Swirl” and “Cornflake Girl” sounded tepid with canned beats the last few times out, so to hear everything truly live (save a few BGVs and effects) last night was heavenly.

It was Gen X queer night out Sunday night at the Theater at MGM National Harbor for Tori Amos’s first concert here since 2017. (Photo by Desmond Murray; courtesy Girlie Action)

The show had special poignancy too, as Amos grew up in the region. She has written and commented heavily on the immense toll her mother’s 2019 death took on her personally and artistically, so that the date happened to be Mother’s Day gave the proceedings added gravitas. “Mother Revolution” and “Jackie’s Strength” spoke, of course, to the holiday, though (and this is quibbling) I would have vastly preferred “Mother” from “Little Earthquakes,” a deep cut we haven’t heard live in eons. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Highlights included the slinky, rhythm-loopy opener “Juarez”; “Ocean to Ocean,” one of three cuts performed from the new record, which shimmered with Philip Glass-like piano arpeggios; the vampy, slinky interplay between the three musicians on “Mother Revolution”; and unexpected fan favorite “Spring Haze.” Amos, overall, is varying up the set list quite a bit less than is her norm, so it was one of the few surprises of the evening. 

The lengths of several of the songs were drawn out considerably. At times — “A Sorta Fairytale,” the aforementioned “Revolution” — that worked well and gave the band time to languidly jam. At other points, it felt a bit self-indulgent and even slightly boring — as on “Sweet Sangria” and “Liquid Diamonds.” 

“Russia,” a bonus cut from the last album, sounded just how it did when Amos performed it here in 2017, but took on added resonance because of current events. Closing line “Is Stalin on your shoulder” was chilling.

Overall, the show — lighting, pacing, everything — largely worked. The sound mix, which fans have said has been muddy at some venues recently on the tour, was pristine. Pacing only lagged a few times in some of the mid-tempo cuts from later albums, but just when you felt some were zoning — the flow of those entering and exiting is a good barometer — Amos whipped things back together with a fan favorite like “Past the Mission” or “Spring Haze.”

It all came to a satisfying, audience-friendly climax with “Cornflake Girl,” then the two encore cuts, “Precious Things” and “Tear in Your Hand,” both from the first album. 

Vocally, the range was there and sounded lovely, but the oomph was considerably held back. Vocal preservation for the many dates ahead? Probably. It’s understandable. Amos, at 58, may lack the stamina she had 20 years ago, but it did feel underwhelming in passages that in years past would have been full on, balls out like the “Bliss” bridge or the “nine-inch nails” passage from “Precious Things.” 

Not one acknowledgment or mention by Amos of the female folk duo openers Companion. I’d have invited them out for a few numbers to sing BGVs. I mean, heck, they’re in the house, why not? And other than the welcome, a brief soliloquy on Mother’s Day was the only Amos comment of the entire night. 

Still Amos never came off as aloof. She seemed genuinely excited to be playing live again and the queer-heavy crowd responded in kind. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)
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