Review: Laurie Anderson Gets Back to Having a Good Time

Laurie Anderson sounds like she’s ready to have fun again.

That much was clear after the first minute or so of her thrilling multimedia show on Tuesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This one-night-only, 100-minute set, titled “Let X = X,” featured new arrangements of several 1980s-era Anderson songs. It also featured a fun backing band in the jazz combo Sexmob, reliable purveyors of a good time.

Hasn’t Anderson earned a romping concert? So far in this century, she has kept her eye on grave matters. She mourned a changing, vulnerable New York City after Hurricane Sandy in “Landfall,” with the Kronos Quartet. She has likewise mourned the death of her longtime partner, Lou Reed, across multiple projects — including in her graceful, meditative film “Heart of a Dog.” And she detailed human rights violations in “Habeas Corpus,” a 2015 collaboration with a former Guantánamo prisoner, Mohammed el-Gharani, at the Park Avenue Armory.

I attended and admired all those. But I have never witnessed her really enjoying a groove — at least not in the same way that I’ve enjoyed on some of her first recordings, such as “Home of the Brave” or “United States Live.” On Tuesday, though, at the tail end of one spoken interlude that detailed a variety of her heroes — such as Gandhi and Philip Glass — she concluded by mentioning James Brown. When Anderson named the tune “Get on the Good Foot,” the Sexmob slide-trumpeter Steven Bernstein and the drummer Kenny Wollesen indulged her with a musical quotation. Then Anderson whooped a funk-accurate exultation and danced a bit in front of her array of electronics.

It wasn’t the only time she behaved like that. From the moment she strode onstage and triggered the synth samples of “From the Air,” she seemed to be enjoying herself, and reveled in the droll lyrics of that number: “Good evening. This is your captain. We are about to attempt a crash landing.”

Tuesday’s concert wasn’t a historical recreation of past recordings; Sexmob’s sound is a beefier one than on Anderson’s albums. With musicians who can double on electric guitar and bass clarinet, its members offered a rich range of textural variation throughout the evening. “Walk the Dog” was no longer spare, but galvanic. This new backing-band energy seemed to make Anderson’s high, digitally pitch-shifted vocals avoid rote, greatest-hits-show style. Similarly, a medley of “Born, Never Asked” and “It Tango” had fresh, more syncopated force.

Recitations of childhood memories that appeared in “Heart of a Dog” were also part of the set, along with some basso profundo observations from Fenway Bergamot, Anderson’s male alter-ego (as heard on the 2010 album “Homeland”).

And when Anderson and Sexmob played “Only an Expert” — perhaps her only banger from this century — she also took the opportunity to address the gravity of breaking news from the current Israel-Hamas war. (She avoided assigning blame for a hospital bombing in Gaza that day, while acknowledging the undeniable fact that it happened.) Originally, the song’s litany of state-sponsored crimes was a gloss on America’s invasion of Iraq, ironically noting:

But on Tuesday, she slipped in a new travesty: “and bomb hospitals.” (At another point, she invited the audience to scream — cathartically, Yoko Ono-style — against “genocides happing everywhere” and the holding of “hostages in Gaza.”)

In a concert that otherwise offered breezy, rocking, swinging fun, such invocations of unsettling current events rode a fine line. But to my eyes and ears, Anderson pulled off that tricky task. In this moment, all sophisticated, adult-coded entertainment is obligated to complete with our awareness of sobering topics, the ones that Anderson has focused on in recent years, like increasingly dangerous waves of water and lethal tides of government-sponsored dehumanization.

There was a great deal else in the show: her electronically modified solo violin playing; a performance of her Massenet-inspired pop hit, “O Superman”; aperçus from her friend Sharon Olds, the pathbreaking confessional poet; video art of Anderson’s design that embraced concepts of artificial intelligence. But it was her willingness to keep tragic contemporary material in view — even when enjoying the breadth of a half-century’s catalog — that amounted to its own form of spiritual advice or moral instruction.

When Anderson appeared for an encore, she led the audience in tai chi movements. This risked objections of blasé appropriation, but her creative practice has always made space for genuine gestures of cultural synthesis. And on Tuesday, it was good to see these aspects of her art operating in counterpoint once again.

Laurie Anderson and Sexmob

Performed on Tuesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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