“Seriously. How do you get arrested at a Michelle Branch concert?” Asks Michelle Branch — clearly in on the joke. “That’s not really going to give you much street cred.”
The zinger, in between songs at her show at Emo’s in Austin, Texas, was in reference to her show the night before, in Houston, where she referenced that the cuffed culprit was biting a security guard. If you were alive and cognizant of pop culture around the turn of the millennium, then you understood: violence is just not something that happens at a Michelle Branch concert. Not 15 years ago. Definitely not now.
Michelle Branch and I are the same age. I say that not to inject myself into the story — I’ll do that later — but to set the table for you: In the summer of 2001, in the era of peak-Britney and peak-Christina, a fresh-faced 18 year-old strumming an acoustic guitar lit MTV and commercial radio on fire with a track that sounded like the teen-dream, girl-next-door approximation of Lemon Parade-era Tonic. It was a palette cleanser from the overly slick and dance-y pop music machine epidemic sweeping the U.S. at the time.
“Everywhere” is a perfect piece of young adult pop. And it’s, arguably, only the fourth-best song on The Spirit Room, the Sedona, Arizona singer-songwriter’s debut album — the one that catapulted her into stratospheric superstardom. “All You Wanted” and “Goodbye To You” followed as singles. Her sophomore major-label release, Hotel Paper, was a touch harder and grittier. Then came the massive Santana collab, “Game of Love,” where she out-Smoothed Rob Thomas and held her own with the legendary axe-shredder. The sky was the limit. Branch was — forgive me — everywhere … and then she wasn’t.
Record label hell crippled her attempts to release a proper followup. The brass wanted her to swim further out into the mainstream, vamp over some sick beats, and become an arena-packing pop princess. The lane would be filled by others: Pink’s post-Mizzundastood output sounds like it could have been handled capably by Michelle Branch. It’s also not a leap to imagine her linking up with Max Martin to cook up something strikingly similar to Taylor Swift’s Red. Her poppier, piano-ier contemporaries Vanessa Carlton and Sara Bareilles found success in their own way. Of all the names mentioned, only Swift is younger. Michelle Branch just turned 34. She had the chops to be one of music’s biggest, most enduring stars. But, industry be damned, not at the expense of her artistic vision. Thank god for that.
Instead, Branch retreated. She synced up with Jessica Harp to form the country(!!!) duo The Wreckers, mining territory Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe would later hit paydirt on. But, mostly, she just went silent, and became one of music’s great “What the hell happened to …” stories that didn’t involve descents into drugs or madness. She got married. She had a daughter (Owen, who’s now 11). She got divorced. And finally, mercifully, was released from her record contract. But a funny thing happens when people drift out of the spotlight: They grow up. Often without you knowing. If you’ve ever moved away from your hometown only to return for your 20-year reunion, you know.
There isn’t a massive blueprint for how to re-enter the zeitgeist after 14 years away, but this isn’t a story without precedent. D’Angelo, most famously and recently, stuck the landing when he descended from the heavens to gift the world with Black Messiah in December 2014. Last seen flaunting his abs on MTV just before Branch would make her debut, D’Angelo emerged as a weathered, weary renaissance man, hitting all the right notes in crafting a mature, measured, textured record that’s preternaturally profound, gorgeous and deft. Michelle Branch’s 2017 addition to her canon, Hopeless Romantic, is not that. (To be fair, nothing is: Black Messiah ranks parallel with To Pimp A Butterfly as the greatest records released this century.) That said, it’s close — and the best work of her career. It’s moody, hazy, catchy, fun and layered. If the aesthetic whispers “The Black Keys,” that’s no accident, either. Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney produced and partially financed the album, the two began dating, and he’s now both her drummer and fiancee. Which leads us back to the show in Austin — her first in the city.
After leading off with “Best You Ever,” a sturdy, smirking breakup anthem that channels equal parts Sheryl Crow and Lana Del Rey, Branch first drew roars from her 2002 blockbuster “All You Wanted.” Women about her age belted out the chorus to each other, uncontrollable smiles radiating from their faces, possibly remembering drunken nights in their dorm rooms screaming the song to their sorority sisters. Her new material stood in lock-step with the classics. These are stronger songs that don’t yet have the emotional anchors of the well-worn standbys, yet they played seamlessly against each other. The real coup was the way she appropriated her old material to the woman she’s become: The throwbacks weren’t an attempt to revisit her youth, but rather, to bring the songs into 2017. Songs like “Goodbye To You” and “You Get Me” carry greater weight and ache, played un-rushed, by a self-assured mother in her mid-30s just happy to be playing rock-and-roll fast and loose with her friends, in front of a crowd that numbered in the hundreds — not thousands. Her morphine-drip rendition of “Game of Love” drew more lighters than smartphones. And, at more than one point, yes … someone lit a joint. At a Michelle Branch concert. In 2017. (Author’s note: It was not me.)
The venue was loaded with men and (mostly) women, predominantly white, between the ages of 29 and 36. Very rarely has a target demographic been so clearly defined at a concert. Xennials have their poster girl now … all grown up. These were the kids who remembered life before the Internet but are still young enough now to almost totally get Snapchat. Branch came into her own in lockstep with the choir she was preaching to. By the time she closed her second encore with a fuzzy, woozy, singalong interpretation of the song that started it all, all those years ago, it became clear: Michelle Branch didn’t change, she merely became herself. She’s still walk-into-a-pole gorgeous and fresh-faced, a little more ink on her body, nearly two decades of cynicism, success, motherhood, heartbreak and parties all carving her path through this world and the smile-wrinkles on her face. It’s easy to see her settling into a musical groove, continuing to churn out expert pop and Americana when it suits her. But, if the show was any indication, she’s in no rush: she’s just enjoying the moment that should’ve been hers long ago and she probably never thought would come … not in this way.
As I walked outside of the venue, long after the last note was strummed, and long after damn near everyone else had made their way to the exits, I stumbled past a couple of women sitting on the sidewalk, smoking American Spirits. At my friend’s urging, I asked them for two. We introduced ourselves, and the two women on the sidewalk casually mentioned that they were just on stage. Indeed, they were the bassist and keyboard players in Michelle’s backing band, both from Nashville, though one had recently relocated to Brooklyn. We had a seven-minute dialogue which concluded with them asking me if I knew any great dive bars to drink and play darts at. I happily obliged.
I thought back to how different life was, back when I first listened to “Everywhere,” back before I even started smoking, back before I myself started playing music, back before life picked me up and tossed me around — same as it does to all of us, I suppose — and when the dust cleared I was 34, a working musician, living in Austin, Texas. I thought about how Michelle Branch was the gutter-punk Upstate New Yorker’s guilty pleasure: The CD I borrowed from my sister and played until the grooves were run dry. I thought about just how good and right it felt to be in that exact place, in that exact moment, listening to that exact performance. And how so many others probably felt that same way, as they pulled out their iPhones to take grainy video of “Breathe” and “Are You Happy Now.” Michelle Branch may not have gained the pop notoriety she seemed destined for: But she gained “street cred,” if we’re defining that as the wear-and-tear of a life well lived yet not always easy, crashing against us like waves, eroding the bedrock we built our lives upon into the sand upon which we retreat to when we want to feel young again.
It’s beyond intriguing, that a woman who started out sounding years beyond her age, became a woman who grew into herself, while reminding an adoring crowd of what it was like to be young again. Michelle Branch never became Britney, Christina, Pink, Taylor, or — hell — even D’Angelo. But she became who she was born to be. And, for one night, that was more than enough.