New York

Laurie Anderson

Beacon Theater

The latest of Laurie Anderson’s talking electronic-blues performances showed subtle changes in her trademark formula of musical monologues accompanied by elaborate mixed media visual imagery and quirky props. She has continued to refine a small vocabulary of rich ideas that seems to be capable of infinite development. On the surface, these shifts of emphasis don’t appear to be major new statements. In this concert, however, the sum total of Anderson’s alterations—those that have slowly accumulated over her more-than-a-decade-long performing career as well as those apparent since her last New York performance, in 1984—added up to a fresh impression of the work of this accomplished, still evolving artist.

At the Beacon, Anderson occupied center stage and was, as usual, the center of attention, speak/singing her often funny, always pointed aperçus set to simple electronic musical riffs. The lyrics were about the further adventures of her staple wide-eyed “I,” the Anderson who sees funny things, has peculiar thoughts, dreams a lot (the word “dream'' occurs in most of her song sketches), and who comments in a faux naïf manner on the comic absurdity of it all. In this concert, ”Laurie Anderson,“ a persona offered as a neo-William Burroughsian sage, was livelier, more playful, and even more cartoonish than before. This metamorphosis was reflected most obviously in Anderson’s garb. Following her early-’70s white minimalist/hippie gown and her late-’70s punkish sci-fi, suits, the mid-’80s ”Anderson“ went for all-out glitz in a gold lamé suit, bright green shirt, silver tie, and red shoes. This glittering concert character, like all pop personas, has changed clothing to update her assumed role, that of symbolic stand-in for the collective unconsciousness of the moment, a sensibility that, these days, comes in colors, especially hyperactive ”Miami Vice" hues.

Other sensual elements of her performance sketches were pumped up, filled out, and colored in as well, to sync with the speedy rhythms of an audience whose contextual references for Anderson are now more likely to be MTV and stand-up comedy than Conceptual art and Minimalism. The musical sound was clearly enriched, with more varied textures, complex arrangements, and punched-up dynamics, so much so that her older songs have been drastically reworked in her “new and improved” idiom.

A lengthy scene from Anderson’s concert film, Home of the Brave, 1985, was projected during the live show, revealing the visual equivalent of these more finely honed layering techniques. The sequence showed a television framed within a larger television screen, with musicians playing both within the projection and in front of it on the Beacon’s stage. Meanwhile, downstage (the scene was shot in a theater), Anderson waltzed through this visual conundrum with William Burroughs, stating in almost comically clichéd terms her essential figurative attitude: a dance through the cacophonous clutter of media overload with a visionary guru. In this film vignette, as throughout the entire concert, Anderson’s sensibility-saturated performance effectively generated an aura of surrealistic dreaminess and wry humor with less portentousness and more point than before. And, while Anderson’s performance problems have remained the same (the stop-and-start rhythm of a two-hour concert made up of many small sketches eventually drags down the overall arc of performance energy), this concert showed a new, impressive skill at quick pacing and smooth transitions, so that the attention only finally gave out during the last couple of numbers.

A larger problem, and a wonderfully knotty one, revolves around Anderson’s message. Broken down into many fragmentary units, her aphoristic insights sometimes seem precious, a bit wee. Yet her “larger” statements, like the vast themes put forth by her seven-hour epic United States, 1983, have always been less incisive than the individual sketches. For all her vaunted conceptualism, Anderson is a lyric poet, not a systematic analyst. In this performance, the inherent tension between intuitive glimpses and theoretical conclusions was weighted in favor of theater. The variety, clarity, and sheer drama of her audio-visual numbers made questions of any deeper meanings irrelevant.

John Howell