Last Friday it was Valentine’s Day, but all I saw was tears. I’ve wondered before how some musicians can sing some of their more emotional songs during live performance without becoming visibly emotional themselves. Aren’t they attached to those lyrics (especially if they’ve written them)? Are they desensitized by the one-hundredth time they play that song about having their heart ripped out by the one who doesn’t even love them anymore? Or worse yet — the one who never did? It wasn’t full-on sobbing, but last Friday, Hether Fortune wouldn’t hold it in.
Peculiarly sandwiched on the bill at the most recent installment of the experimental/industrial-focused REPLICANT Presents series at Oakland’s Night Light, Fortune was scheduled in between opening and headlining acts to deliver an intimate solo set, sans Wax Idols. I had gone anticipating that it would be a rare treat.
Heather Fortune photos by Sadie Mellerio
You’re supposed to be with your lover on Valentine’s. You’re not supposed to be alone. That’s the worst-case scenario if you buy into the norms and expectations placed on yet another commercialized holiday. But imagine being alone, not only because you don’t have your bandmates (Wax Idols) to musically support you, but because you’re going through a divorce. Meanwhile, you’re up on stage about to perform in front of an audience. Certainly not one to hide or shy away from the spotlight, Fortune embraced her predicament. Instead, she announced that in fact, this is her situation.
After Vestals (armed with a guitar and gear that looped layers of complimentary noise) finished her opening set, DJs mixed acid techno with whatever tracks Barn Owl saw fit for spinning that night. But then the room seemed different. One could sense the changing of the atmosphere right down to the molecules because of Fortune’s poised, gothic and graceful presence.
Standing tall without a band or a man; her lanky, trademark androgynous figure appeared on an un-lit stage. Draped in a lacy, button-down blouse; our dually-wounded, heavy-hearted warrior had to face the harsh reality of her bandaged finger that had been crushed and ripped open by an amplifier in an accident a week earlier.
She carefully tuned her weapon of choice — a beautiful black-and-white Danelectro 12-string guitar. The instrument, combined with a hard-cover bound journal (perhaps containing a set list, lyrics, or maybe just her thoughts) that lay at her feet, conjured bohemian images of a hippie-freak, pre-T.Rextasy-era Bolan about to play Middle Earth or some coffee shop.
Stripped of arrangement and with not much more than her soul to bear, the vibe of her set was very much singer-songwriter with an emphasis on despair. While her vocal-style seemed to channel the aura of Bowie, it was her strumming of that jangling guitar, with its larger-than-life sound, that seemed like it could fill the universe with its unwavering, doleful tone.
In a genuinely honest moment and without any dramatic intonation, she quickly uttered “This is tough” into the microphone. Lyrics to a cover song were muddled in the sound system, and then we were treated to a new song, apparently never heard by anyone before. By that point, the words almost didn’t matter since we were already running high on emotion.
Towards the end, tears welled up, overflowing onto her thick eye-liner, mid-song. I was somewhat stunned by the display of emotion, but not at all alienated. The entire thing could have been awkward for both audience and performer, but in reality everyone seemed receptive to what she had to express that night. It was an opportunity to connect on a deeper level or however those who were subjected saw fit.
One could interpret it all as a damaged, agonizing wail and while that may hold some validity, it would trivialize the more noble qualities of a veteran, seasoned ahead of her time, demonstrating strength in sharing vulnerability while ultimately remaining in control. Numbness worn off, Fortune delivered something beautiful only the lonely might fully understand.