On her blog, ‘The Roadburn Café’, Melanie once wrote simply about touring mate and Flamenco guitarist, Beau Jarred Schekeryk, “Beau is my guitarist, my son and friend.” Her husband-manager, Peter Schekeryk, used to take care of the details of touring, but now that he is gone Melanie and Beau are a “two-man team.” That said, their strong familial connection strikes a warm chord as they perform. They are self-contained and down-to-earth but a very endearing duo.

Melanie Safka grew up in Queens and attended the New York American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1969, a shy performer in her 20s, she entertained crowds at Woodstock, by singing ‘Beautiful People’ during a downpour. Glowing flickers from appreciative crowds’ lighters rewarded her dedication. That singular event inspired the then longhaired hippie with the chocolate brown hair to pen ‘Lay Down (Candles in the Rain), a million copy selling single in 1970.

She’s played the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall and served as a UNICEF representative and is now promoting ‘Ever Since You Never Heard of Me’, her plaintive latest album. She has also attracted a young audience – her hit, ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Song,’ was covered by Miley Cyrus and her songs have been heard on commercials and covered frequently by her peers.

But for the people tonight at Mayne Stage, Melanie remains a coveted cult figure due to her grainy voice, carefree style of performance and counter culture ease. In a span of only ten minutes, I overhear two parents say that they named daughters after her. In fact, one of them stands ahead of me, anxious to hear her namesake’s treasures.

The concert moves like a circle – with no definitive beginning, middle or end. When the handsome Beau walks onstage, wearing a baseball cap and casual clothes, he does so without fanfare, and, as though he is speaking to his next door neighbor, he casually announces, “My mom says you’d probably like to hear some instrumentals…”

He entertains us with ‘Michael Hedges Still Here’, ‘Altamiri’ and a Chet Atkins version of a very popular Michael Jackson song. (I won’t reveal the title and spoil the surprise.) He ends the set with a striking version of ‘Malaguena,’ where he is unexpectedly joined by British blues harpist, Julian Dawson.

Melanie’s long red-fringed shawl drapes over her brown caftan and skirt. Her first words, which are “I’ve been in LA for too long and it took me two whole days to get out of there - and now I’m with real people”, makes the Midwesterners laugh.

“This is the story I wrote when I was just a girl, when I fell in love with the human race and, you know, I still have those moments,” she says, lighting up the stage, plucking her wood-stained six-string.

During this song, ‘Beautiful People,’ Beau played guitar with a long bow. Afterwards, Melanie briskly announced that there’s a set list somewhere on stage but “I’m probably not going to do it.” The statement incited a bunch of fans to shout out song titles. After the random deluge, she decided on ‘Beetle,’ a childlike song with a singsong melody.

For the song off of ‘Ever Since You Never Heard of Me’, she invited Dawson back onstage. ‘Hushaby’ had truly haunting lyrics like “After all is said and done/Daddy’s a hero, you are a widow’s son.”

‘Keep on Holding Me,’ also had a poignant and flowing narrative. “I wish I lived a blessed life, homegrown food and Christ on Sunday…” Melanie’s voice sounded wonderfully parched at times, and, even though the guitar sometimes sounded out of tune, it hardly mattered.

And even though the audience probably expected the homegrown songs, not everyone expected her hilarious patter: “It’s a good idea to get some familiar songs out of the way. People don’t know if I’m one of the Spice Girls…” she quipped.

Another new song, ‘I Tried to Die Young,’ reflected her odd experiences growing older in the industry, doing “shows at museums right next to the T-Rex.”

She took time to discuss ‘Melanie and The Record Man’, a new musical about her life, which originated in New York. “I always wanted to be the older woman: Edith Piaf, Rita Tushingham…”

‘Make It Work For Me,’ also had a curious mix of lyrics: “And when the sun sets upside down and the hands of the clock go the other way around..” She expressed her delight in really belting out the song, adding, “If anybody knows Aretha Franklin, I’d really like her to play this song.”

What was most delightful was being cordially invited into Melanie’s brain waves. Before playing the next song, she told us she hadn’t yet determined the title.

And so began a game of rock, paper, scissors. ‘Songs of Melted Gold or Love?’ or ‘Doesn’t Have to Hurt’…

But even though the title remains a mystery, the lyrics are palpable: “Words don’t have to kill/Passions blessed curse/Words don’t have to kill/Spin around the earth…”

Beau brushed the bow against the instrument and the harpist’s mournful phrases echoed his mother’s weathered insights.

For ‘Angel Watching,’ Beau sang along. “There’s a thread that joins each to the other/ brother to the sister, sister to the brother…” This very simple, but moving and spiritually uplifting ballad was reminiscent of a much earlier time. Melanie has sung at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Fest, and it was easy to see why she was an excellent choice.

She followed up with a few sing-a-longs such as ‘I Love People Who Smile,’ and as we all got more comfortable together, her voice took on new textures and her phrasing began to channel Lou Reed or Bob Dylan. She seemed to like us, too – “I think that was one of the best group sings!”

She introduced ‘Brand New Key’ by sharing that it was banned on radio stations and she also revealed: “I knew that if this was a hit it would doom me to be cute for the rest of my life…”

For one of the most fun moments of the night she corralled everyone into making background noises and then warned, “Don’t make too many noises! You’ll miss the social commentary.”

But as soon as she smoothly sang that first line - “I rode my bicycle past your window tonight” - the amateur chorus piped in at most of the expected junctures.

The song led to some more random moments. “If they did a movie of my life, who should play Beau?” she asked everyone.

“Beau,” we replied.

Another playful moment came as soon as she started ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.’ “I’m going to hold that note like Kenny G…” After singing the famous chorus in French, she even asked the audience to sing it in German and several stumbled through it.

But the sentiment of peace came up more than once. ‘I Let It Slide’ is all about forgiveness and forging peaceful solutions. “I wrote it down and I tore it up and I let it slide,” she sang genuinely, explaining life hasn’t always been easy or fair.

When she played the much awaited ‘Lay Down’ (Candles in the Rain), a handful of people did, of course, wave their lit up cell phones in the air, but without the drizzle, mud and spontaneity of the 60s, their motions were barely detected. All eyes remained on the still striking silhouette on the stage and her guitarist, son and friend as she ended her encore, “I can’t stand the taste of leftover wine…” I guess we’ve all grown up over the years, haven’t we?

The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro at www.philamonjaro.com.

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Commenting On: Mayne Stage, Chicago, 21/4/2013 - Melanie

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