Lady Gaga "Dive Bar Tour"
Oct. 27, 2016
Lady Gaga is singing her new song "A-YO" in my face. “Blow it in your face!” she screams. “BLOW IT IN YOUR FACE!” I echo back at her.
How completely bonkers. It's hard to know what to take in when you're watching one of the world's biggest superstars in a room with just 300 people and you're at such an extreme proximity that your knee is touching her mic stand. Inexplicably, all I can do is stare at her hands. I'm fixated by Lady Gaga's teeny, tiny hands because I've never seen them before. Her short fingers. Her glitter-varnished nails that are cut childlike short so she can play guitar. They look so much like ordinary hands.
Before now, Gaga didn't show her hands. She wore that poker face of hers, via larger-than-life concepts, a chameleonlike character of staggering proportions. Her softness, her human core, the fact that she's as dinky as a diamond-strewn Thumbelina, were protected. In stadium-sized rooms, you can only imagine her up close.
With her latest record, Joanne, released last Friday, Gaga wants to get in our faces. Tonight is the third and final stop on her Dive Bar Tour (sponsored by Bud Light). It began in Nashville, moved to New York and wound up here at the Satellite on Silver Lake Boulevard, next door to a 7-Eleven. You can hear Gaga sound-check on arrival. Surreal doesn't really begin to describe what it's like to hear the din of her running through note-for-note on "Million Reasons" in a venue that ordinarily houses the likes of U.K. punks Fat White Family and club night Dance Yourself Clean.
Across the street, outside a coffee shop, hundreds of fans wait for a glimpse of Gaga. This is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion and every Little Monster is desperate to own a piece of that history. Inside, those who are making history are instructed to hold a can of Bud Light at all times just before the Facebook Live stream kicks in and blasts the show into homes worldwide. “Do not cross the yellow line, do not touch the lady,” come the instructions. “Do act like MONSTERS!”
The lady, however, wants to be touched. Her deepened sense of authenticity demands we have a two-way conversation. “We had a little car trouble,” says Gaga, arriving slightly behind schedule to play a seven-song, 40-minute set. Rocking up in a white convertible previously owned by Elvis, she tells the crowd she's missed them and is relieved to be here.
“Elvis loaned me his car for tonight's show. That's a long, far way to come to loan me something. All the way from heaven.” When Gaga emerged on the scene in 2008 with a penchant for excess and a filthy mouth, that humor was the ace in her pack. Thankfully it's back at a time when we need some hilarity in pop again.
Joanne is the sole focus of tonight's set, an album that picks up where the likes of "Speechless" from The Fame Monster and "You & I" from second album Born This Way left off. The new songs are all whiskey-soaked leather and cutthroat lyrics, Coyote Ugly by way of Barbra Streisand with a tad of Debbie Harry's crazed aloofness. Gaga surrounds herself with a stage of guitars gorgeous enough to make you weep, a full band including one Mark Ronson, who co-wrote and produced the record, a selection of Stetson hats and a typewriter on a stool.
Each song is a performance in and of itself. She belts out choruses standing, and cries out her innermost confessions sitting. She takes her Stetson off, she pulls it close to her chest, she houses it atop her piano. The hat is near enough for you to read the "M" sizing etched on its inside rim. Before a two-song encore she re-emerges in Levi's cutoffs and a white T-shirt, tied up in a knot, guts out.
Minus the extravagant outfits of yore, there's room to explore Gaga beyond artifice. At the age of 30 she seems to have left some of the poses of her 20s behind, cleansing the palate for her next evolutionary stage. That said, she remains pure theater, a one-woman Annie Get Your Gun. Songs like the sax-fueled opener "Come to Mama" are electrocuted with spunky fun. Others, like ballad "Million Reasons," brutalize you with tenderness. Her set runs through emotions the way musicals move through scenes. Just because it's Broadway doesn't mean it's insincere.
“Right now this is the No. 1 song on iTunes in the U.S.,” says Gaga introducing "Million Reasons." She adds that it's also No. 1 in Saudi Arabia. The artwork for her last album, ArtPop, was censored there. “I want you to know that I feel so heard as a woman. And if I'm heard, that means that you're heard. I can fucking hear you.”
She breaks into tears, sitting on the edge of the stage. Where "Million Reasons" would be, say, the introspective "On My Own" segment of Gaga's Les Miserables, "Angel Down" is her societally concerned "Do You Hear the People Sing?" “I wrote this song about people loving each other,” she says of the Trayvon Martin-inspired track. “The election's coming up. Not everybody's going to vote for the same person. We don't have to hate each other because of that. We have to come together.” Her eyes glass over again, reddening.
The most poignant moment comes with title track "Joanne." Ronson looks a bit awestruck as Gaga introduces it with that typewriter on her right, a sheet of the song lyrics lodged in the machine, and Ronson on her left strumming an acoustic — just as they wrote it. Joanne is named after an aunt Gaga never knew. It's a gift not just to her fans but to her family, who have been her own backbone.
“After this record came out, everyone came to my father's restaurant in New York to celebrate and I saw a look in my father's eyes that I'd never seen my whole life.” She tries to keep her cool while discussing her aunt's premature death. “I used to wonder if I ever got to meet my real dad. Sometimes things happen to you that are so hard you die, too, or a part of you dies. With this song, part of my dad came back to life. I hope that when you hear it and you think about the loss in your life, this song can heal you and your family like it healed mine.”
Earlier the day of Gaga's show, the internet marked out the 10th anniversary of Amy Winehouse's Back to Black — also produced by Ronson. During their time working on Joanne, Ronson gave Gaga a guitar, which she called "Amy." Watching her play such an intimate club show, it strikes me that Gaga and Winehouse were arguably cut from the same high-strung cloth: a hunger for applause, a fire for songwriting, a rare gift of musicality. Even if it's the slightest notion, via Joanne, perhaps Gaga carries a torch for Amy. Ronson picks out the tune of "Joanne," watching her sing it, smiling deeply. You wonder whether he, too, feels the therapy of Gaga singing, “Girl, where do you think you're going?”
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As with any dive bar show, it's spontaneity that reaps the most rewards. Gaga cavorts around like a pistol without the safety catch on. You never know when she's going to fire a round.
All that vulnerability flies out the back door as hit single "Perfect Illusion" begins. A grand finale, it comes over like Pat Benatar trying to break out of a penitentiary. While ranting and pogoing up and down, Gaga casts safety aside and takes a risk as bold as her latest album when she decides to stage-dive into the crowd, re-creating the raw energy of the song's video. She entrusts her body to her fans as they carry her limbs over their heads. As beer flies through the air, and Gaga makes her way back to her pulpit, she picks up a can of Bud Light and sprays its entire contents all over her blonde extensions. All the flowers clipped into her hair drip with cheap American lager. Eventually she centers herself amid her band, belts the last note and drops the mic. Dive Bar Tour: done.
After the show, Gaga sits behind the bar in sunglasses and a studded leather jacket, taking the time to talk to every one of her die-hards. As I'm on the cusp of leaving, one of the Bud Light reps insist I participate in the meet-n-greet. “Why don't you want to say hi?” he says, rhetorically. I don't have anything for Gaga to sign, so I rip a beer-stained poster off the wall. “That's badass,” she says, penning it with her new autograph: "Joanne xo." I thank her, and offer that it was her emergence eight years ago that really gave me something to write about as a music journalist. She smiles and gives me a high-five. “You've given me something to think about before I go to bed tonight,” she says.
Some critics think Joanne is ham-fisted; some cynics think a corporate-sponsored dive bar tour can't feel legitimate. But however contrived Lady Gaga may at first appear, her aura is incredibly intimate.