On March 6th, 2008 at Chicago’s Park West (a classy, intimate performance space – it has a capacity of around 750) Missy Higgins gave a brilliantly moving performance to a sold out crowd of exuberant fans. Almost exactly one year later, Higgins is back in Chicago for another show, this time at a venue almost twice as large: The Vic – a two-tier performance venue with a capacity of around 1400. There are many ways to describe The Vic, but during her show, Higgins described it perfectly: “It’s royal but it’s a little bit shabby, which is perfect.” The venue has an aura of aging grandeur – and a gigantic disco ball hanging from its vaulted ceiling, for good measure. On the night of March 13th, though, audience members walking under the “Missy Higgins – SOLD OUT” marquee weren’t thinking of the fading grandness of The Vic – or even of the mysteriously conspicious disco ball - but of the charming Australian they’d come to see.

And for some, that charming Australian started playing a few minutes before 7:30 – Lenka, an “old friend” of Higgins’ started the night off right with her ’50s era bubble-gum pop meets indie vibes tunes. Sounding like a mixture of Kate Nash and Bjork while prancing around the stage in a cutesy red skirt and top, Lenka and her band easily provided the audience with plenty of energy and showed those who may not have heard of her why she was opening for Missy Higgins. Belting out songs like “Knock Knock,” “Skipalong,” and “Don’t Let Me Fall,” Lenka and her band dazzled with coordinating red, white, and black attire, and miniature wooden cutouts of trees and birds that looked like they may have come from her impressive and popular “Trouble Is A Friend” video.

American-born second act Justin Nozuka (who, I was informed by an event staff member, had had as many fans as Higgins in the audience at the last show on the tour) began around 8:15 as part of what Lenka dubbed an “Aussie sandwich” of music.  WIth hardly an aside to the audience, Nozuka began knocking out tunes to the screams of female fans. With his Justin Timberlake falsetto and Jason Mraz lyricisms, Nozuka promptly delivered “Gray,” “Don’t Listen to a Word You’ve Heard,” “Golden Train,” and “Guess I Should Know” to the audience’s open ears before pausing and giving a little background on “Mr. Therapy Man” – a song inspired by David Gray and Citizen Cope. And though it was clear that Nozuka did have a strong following in the audience, it was also clear about midway through his set that his emotional pleadings and softer love songs, played out while bathed in a soft blue light, were beginning to wear a bit on an audience of 1400 who had come to see power ballads by an Australian powerhouse. Nozuka wrapped up nicely with a solid round of applause and headed to the lobby to sign autographs for a line of eager fans.

A few minutes before 10, the moment most of the audience had been waiting for finally arrived. The lights came up and Missy Higgins, alone on stage behind her keyboard, opened the show with a song she wrote almost a decade ago at the age of 16, a song that jumpstarted her career: “All For Believing.” She then almost immediately launched into “Sugarcane” - a track off her album On A Clear Night that she left out of her lineup at the concert in 2008. In fact, this time around, Higgins didn’t leave off a single track from Clear Night, hitting all 11 tracks from the fan-favorite.

And despite her early exclamation of “There’s so many of you! This is awesome!”, Higgins seemed much more subdued and mellow in 2009 after her whirlwind year, consisting of nearly constant touring and promotion. With slightly longer hair and more conservative dress, it seems that Higgins has matured as a performer since her last gig in Chicago. And for someone already as introspective and deep as Higgins, that’s saying a lot. Her sense of humor and humble presentation are still solidly intact, but Higgins carries herself with a much calmer demeanor, her previous carefree sentiments slightly toned down. This new personality was echoed, oddly enough, in the sole cover of the night – a soaringly emotional rendition of Tom Petty’s “Learning To Fly.” While covers don’t typically make for great music, a well-chosen cover – an this one was well-chosen – can improve a show and be intensely expressive.

The more lighthearted Missy returned midway during the show when in the middle of an acoustic and solo rendition of the hearbreaking  tune “Forgive Me,” Higgins’ microphone cut out. She continued to belt out the words as the entire audience, on the floor and on the balcony immediately fell silent, allowing Higgins’ un-microphoned vocals to carry throughout the theatre. This impressively beautiful moment met with thunderous applause and then a giggling Higgins asking if we had been able to hear her at all.  “I just did my thing,” she laughed, “so thank you for listening so well.” She then surprised the audience with the unreleased “We Run So Fast,” a song about “the fact that we have no control over what tomorrow is going to bring.”

From here on out, Higgins stuck to tracks from On A Clear Night, giving a soulful rendition of “Secret” – at one point even getting on the ground while playing the guitar – while her band backed her up with Blue Man Group-esque drumbeats. “Warm Whispers” built from a somberly quiet exposition to an explosive crescendo and “Peachy” brought in clapping halfway through the song and then developed into a sing-a-long of mostly nonsensical verbal outbursts proving that while Higgins has begun to develop a more conservative stage presence, she’s still got enough goofiness and spontaneity in her to produce something as oddly fascinating as a “sing what I sing” experience in the middle of a break-up song. The evening closed out (as it did last year) with the inspirational “Steer” – a song that delivers Higgins’ message full force – “so now you finally know that you control where you go.” For now it looks like Higgins is on a road she – and her many fans – can appreciate.

Missy Higgins set list from Chicago performance at The Vic (March 13th, 2009):

All For Believing
Sugarcane
The River
Wrong Girl
Ten Days
100 Round the Bends
Learning To Fly – Tom Petty cover
Angela
Forgive Me
We Run So Fast
Secret
Going North
Warm Whispers
Peachy
Where I Stood
Steer

Read my review of Missy’s 2008 Chicago show (complete with set list)

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