Alanis Morissette at Penn State, December 4, 1995

Concert Review by John A. Johnson

Live concerts obviously differ from studio-recorded music in several ways. In concert you have only one shot, whereas in the studio you have as many takes as you need to get it right. Studio production also allows additional tracking, overlaying, and special effects that are difficult or impossible to produce in a live show. But, most importantly, studio audiences consist of a small group of engineers working in the background, whereas the large crowd of fans become an integral part of the whole concert experience. This review comments upon the whole concert experience I had when Alanis Morissette performed at Penn State's Rec Hall on December 4, 1995.

Rec Hall, Penn State's ancient athletic facility, has hosted many large concerts. My very first big-concert experience was a show by Chicago in 1972; since then I've seen America, Bruce Springsteen, the Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, the Isley Brothers, and listened to the Guess Who in the parking lot when I didn't have a ticket. Although no one has announced anything, Alanis might be the last big concert in Rec Hall. Because Penn State recently joined the Big 10, a new athletic/convocation center was built next to Beaver Stadium, and this site will apparently accommodate concerts in the future.

By virtue of its age and structure, Rec Hall has, well, an atmosphere that I am going to miss. The floor contains four parallel basketball courts surrounded by pull-out wooden bleachers. The fourth court is mechanically raised about five feet to form a stage for concerts. The official capacity is over 5200, and Alanis sold out in less than two days. A bunch of fold-out chairs were set up in the back on basketball court one, a huge sound-control panel took up most of court two, and court three was left empty. Hmmm, I wonder why?

At 8:00 the house lights in Rec Hall went down, and about 1,000 fans rushed the stage, packing themselves into the empty court like sardines. The warm-up act, Loud Lucy, began playing and lived up to their name. The moshers seemed to like this a lot, but I could have passed. I don't really need any more hearing damage after all the years I spent playing in a band and attending concerts.

Thankfully, Loud Lucy played only about 45 minutes. Just after 9:00 was the moment I had been waiting for. Alanis and her backing band strode energetically on stage and launched into "All I Really Want. Pure energy. They didn't need any props, special visual effects, fancy stage decorations (the stage contained only amps and instruments), or glitter (expect in Alanis's hair). They had all they needed: enthusiasm, talent, and a great sound. (Okay, they did have one special effect--two old-fashioned mirror balls, which cast "stars" around the Hall when the spotlights played on them during "Mary Jane.")

One concern I had before the concert started was how Alanis would sound live without the tracked self-harmonies and background wailing on her album. I thought the produced vocals were an integral part of her sound. I should not have worried. I was wrong. Her voice was so strong, so powerful, that she didn't need artificial fillers. I was surprised to find that her voice sounded even better in concert than on a recording.

She did everything from Jagged Little Pill--I think. To be honest, I was too busy experiencing chills up and down my spine to keep track. Also, in the middle of her set, she paused to say, "You seem like an open and receptive audience, so we'll try something new," and exploded into "Death of Cinderella."

The only thing I didn't especially like about the concert was the distraction of the moshing up front. Don't get me wrong--I don't mind wild crowd participation. I've been there. But everything happening right in front of Alanis seemed to have nothing at all to do with what she was doing. The chaotic swaying, jumping, and body-surfing that began with Loud Lucy seemed completely self-contained and oblivious, not at all in- sync with the mood and rhythm of Alanis's songs. They were not relating to her, and just as easily could have been at some fraternity orgy somewhere. And I don't think Alanis really enjoyed dodging the clothing and shoes the crowd was hurling on stage.

The rest of the crowd was great, though. True to the tradition of Alanis concerts to date, most people knew most of the words to her songs and sang along. A particularly interesting moment came during an extended instrumental introduction to "You Oughta Know." Apparently the crowd could not wait and began belting out the lyrics before Alanis began singing. The Hall got up to the line "Is she perverted like me" when Alanis began with line one. The crowd fell quickly into sync and eventually sang so loud that you could barely hear Alanis and the band. Incredible.

Upon finishing their regular set just before 11:00, the band took an excruciatingly long breather before coming out for an encore. The screaming, shouting, clapping, and stamping to bring her back was the loudest thing I've heard in Rec Hall since the Penn State basketball team (almost?) beat then #1 Indiana. After a couple more numbers there was another break before a second encore. At that point, this old-rocker, despite worshipping Alanis as a goddess, began to get a bit tired. And when my wife said, "Let's go, I'm tired and this is too loud," I didn't complain. I heard later that Alanis ended with my favorite cut from her CD, "Your House." It probably sounded great echoing through Rec Hall. I think about Alanis now every time I walk across court four for a pick-up basketball game.