Thursday, July 6th started like any other day off where I got shit done and was content with what I accomplished… until I decided to check my email. You see, earlier that day part of said shit which I got done involved following up a request about a photo pass to show I was REALLY going out on a limb to acquire. A friend had mentioned that Michelle Branch was coming to town and I got the idea in my head that it would be a fun show to cover. “But Mat,” you may ask, “Michelle Branch is a multi-platinum selling artist touring on her rather excellent new album Hopeless Romantic. What business do you have covering a gig like that?” Good question because I don’t know either, but I wasn’t going to not try. I’ve been a fan of hers for quite some time and it seemed like the least I could do to make a sixteen year old dream come true was send an email. It turns out that’s all it takes sometimes. It made me think back to the days when I pretended to work for Maximum Rock n Roll to get coverage for shows and all the times it actually worked.
Kicking off the Hopeless Romantic Tour in Chicago was a smart idea for no other reason than, if the show is good enough, people in this town will come out no matter what night it’s on. Honestly, I didn’t know what kind of a crowd to expect. I knew I was excited, but it’s not often my opinions line up with a lot of other people’s. It turns out there are plenty of folks wisely willing to come out because when I got there just before indie rock group Haerts, (pronounced “hearts”) was set to go on, the House of Blues was packed. While waiting in the photo pit, Phil Collins’ “Calling in the Air Tonight” came over the speakers. I didn’t think much of it since it was a pop show and it makes sense to play pop songs while people are waiting. But, when the band emerged as it ended, it served as a seamless transition and fitting intro to their show. Members Nini Fabi and Ben Gebert immediately took command of the stage with their powerful harmonies. The slide guitar was a nice touch. I was listening to them earlier and my wife remarked that they sounded exactly like the kind of band who would be opening for Michelle Branch. She was right. They were an apt choice to start the night with strong vocal performances to back up their dreamy blend of soulful, pop rock.
Evidently there were technical issues at one point that prompted an unexpected a Capella performance. If they hadn’t mentioned it, I would never have noticed. They were super on point and I thought it was just part of the show. The band blamed it on first night of tour kinks, which is reasonable considering it was, indeed, the first night. A new song was played from Haerts upcoming record which the band is in the studio working on right now. Considering my knowledge of Haerts extended as far back as that afternoon, I thought it was a fine fit with the rest of their set and established a great precedent for things to come.
The wait between sets felt agonizing. That last half hour before I got to fulfill my teenage dream felt like waiting through the last sixteen years all over again. It was absolutely worth it though as Michelle Branch and her band were all smiles as they came out to a raucous applause of an eager audience. She kicked things off with “Best You Ever,” the lead track from the album of which the tour was named. From there, the set alternated between hits from Branch’s first two albums and the one she released this year. Following up with “You Get Me” sent my heart aflutter as memories of singing these songs with my friends over the years came rushing in. The crowd gave the biggest reaction to these older songs, but that was to be expected. They are what she is best known for after all. I know when I hear about a favorite artist’s new music, my life becomes a quest to acquire said tunes and play them ad nauseam, so I have a tendency to forget that not everyone else is like that.
While many of the songs in Branch’s set were up to sixteen years old, you would never know thanks to fresh arrangements with her stellar band. Their version of 2002 Grammy award-winning hit “The Game of Love” by Santana featuring Michelle Branch was a slowed down, bass driven iteration that I preferred to the original. I am not a huge Santana fan, so for me, the less he’s featured the better. It also helps that Branch’s vocals seem to have only improved over the years and filled every corner of the venue with her velvety, dulcet voice. Having recently moved to Nashville, Branch treated us to a little taste with a cover of “Leave the Pieces” from her project The Wreckers. The bluegrass influence that largely fueled that band was subtly present in the reworkings of older songs and were a big part of what gave them new life.
After closing with on of the catchier songs from Hopeless Romantic, “Living in a Lie,” the crowd wanted more, so Michelle and company returned to the stage to play two more. During the recent election cycle, following Ted Cruz’s withdrawal, Branch went on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee to perform “Goodbye to You” with clever new lyrics dedicated that living ooze pile. The original was performed that night, but I couldn’t help but sing “Goodbye Ted Cruz” over the chorus. Last but not least was the song that put her on my radar in the first place all those years, “Everywhere.” This version a big time departure from the original. It was just Michelle and her guitar performing a fully stripped down rendition that removed any sense that this tour was about just regurgitating the hits. Michelle Branch is a hugely talented song writer who has been through an awful lot. It’s refreshing to see someone go through as many ups and downs as she has and come through it all stronger with her head held high. Voicing her concerns about who all would even come to the show turned out to be for naught because Branch clearly still has fans who are still touched by what she’s done and are excited to come along with whatever direction she goes from here. There is no doubt I can include myself among them. If it’s been a few years since you last thought about Michelle Branch, do yourself a favor and catch up because she has nowhere to go from here but up and I can’t wait to see where that leads.