On a chilly March night, Ezra Furman, supported by Anna Burch, played a well-attended show at Great Scott in Allston. The venue was filled with older and younger folks, probably because of the generation-transcending sounds of these two artists. Furman and Burch both released albums in February: Furman released his new solo record, Transangelic Exodus, on February 9 on Bella Union, and Burch released her first studio album, Quit the Curse, on February 2 on Polyvinyl Records. Despite unpleasant temperatures, people weren’t deterred from coming out to support these artists. They also got the chance to address some serious issues at hand in Massachusetts.
On the sidewalk outside the venue, canvassers for transgender rights were reaching out to people about voting “Yes” on Senate Bill 2407, Massachusetts Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Veto Referendum. Voting “Yes” would block an attempt to repeal the October 2016 law enacted to prohibit gender identity-based discrimination in public spaces like hotels, restaurants, stores—and places like Great Scott. If ever there were a show for these canvassers to show up at, it’s Furman’s. While his gender and sexuality have never been at the absolute forefront of his work, Furman is openly queer and his newest album, Transangelic Exodus, explores themes of queer identity in a deeply emotional way. Naturally, there’s an overlap of Furman’s fans and supporters of protecting these civil liberties.
Anna Burch and her band kicked off the evening. The Detroit-based singer-songwriter had an effortless presence on stage. After introducing her drummer, bassist, and guitarist, she announced sweetly, “This is my cute band.” Burch, whose first name is pronounced “Ah-na,” provided little humorous epithets and sentimental anecdotes for her original songs. For the third track on Quit the Curse, “Asking 4 a Friend,” she said, “This is a song about dating your drug dealer.” Later she asked if anyone in the audience wrote letters in elementary school, dipped the edges in tea, and burned the paper lightly before giving them to friends; several audience members murmured that they did that too, and then she played “Tea-Soaked Letter.” Burch performed her “ballad about a small island in the Detroit River,” titled “Belle Isle,” and shared with the audience her fond memories of spending time there after moving to Detroit. The relatability of Burch’s music is part of what makes her so appealing; everything is from her heart, but the emotions she talks about are shared by everyone. It’s easy to slip into Burch’s music but have your own recollections play through her warm melodies. The chord progressions are reminiscent of early Beatles, and her slightly vintage style makes her the perfect artist to open for Furman. At one point, Burch took a moment to acknowledge the trans rights canvassers outside. On the subject of the protection of civil rights for transgender people, Burch said, “I can safely assume that everyone in the room agrees,” and was met with applause. After her and her cute band’s set, the crowd was ready for Furman.
The house music took a sudden turn towards classical: a grandiose piece filled the room as Furman’s band, The Visions—comprised of Ben Joseph, Jorgen Jorgensen, Sam Durkes, and Tim Sandusky—took the stage. These four musicians have been playing together with Furman since 2013, but they were previously called The Boy-Friends. With the release of Transangelic Exodus came the new name: The Visions. These men aren’t just limited to their primary instruments; in fact, Transangelic Exodus requires them to play several instruments throughout the show. Sandusky, the saxophonist, also played the xylophone and guitar. Jorgensen, the bassist, doubled as the album’s quintessential cellist (the cello is one of the most defining sounds of the album). Joseph manned two different keyboards at once, as well as a guitar. Durkes is endlessly moving, slamming wooden slats together, beating drums. Everyone sings backup, and their voices blend rather beautifully. Overall they’re an incredibly balanced and talented group of musicians.
The crowd suddenly cheered in anticipation as Furman ascended the stage, in time with the magnificent music. He wore a short, floral dress, deep red lipstick, and tights. The first song of the show was one of the most sinister songs off the record, “Come Here Get Away From Me.” He growled into an old radio-esqe microphone on a long cord, similar in sound to the one used by Billie Joe Armstrong in Green Day’s 2004 hit “Holiday,” off American Idiot. Furman’s sound, however, is unlike anyone else’s.
Furman constantly engaged the audience; he never let us get bored, not even for a moment. This isn’t just music: it’s a performance, a story, a legend born before your eyes. He said of the new record, jokingly, “We made all these new songs and they’re all about driving cars,” but it’s rather fitting since the record has been described as a “queer outlaw saga.” It tells the story of himself and his lover, an angel, as they try to escape the grasp of a government that seeks to extinguish them. He introduced the next song, “I Lost My Innocence,” as a story about “having gay sex before the age of 20.” The energy of the evening was certainly influenced by the passionate queer youths in attendance, consuming art that represents them and their experiences. Furman played “I Lost My Innocence” so hard that his guitar strap became unattached, but he played on nonetheless.
On a more serious note, the band performed the thunderous song, “No Place,” of which Furman said: “This song is about having to leave your home late at night because it’s not safe anymore. This probably isn’t something anyone here has experienced, but it happens to some people… a lot.” During the song he cringed, shrunk in terror, and covered his head as if something was blaring in his ears. His music touches on the experiences of marginalized groups in such a powerful way, you can’t help but feel anxious and worried about the protagonists. They also performed more upbeat songs, like “Love You So Bad,” one of the most popular tracks off Transangelic Exodus. “This is one of our few love songs. It’s about failure,” he told the audience. Right after “Love You So Bad,” he played the “Baba O’Riley”-esqe first track on the album, “Suck The Blood From My Wound.” “This song is our movie…it’s about the human body,” he explained. It’s the intensely corporal anthem that drops you into Furman’s tale of him and his beloved angel fleeing from an oppressive government. At one point during the show, Furman took the opportunity to promote the trans rights canvassers. He called out the organizer by name and urged the audience to speak with the volunteers after the show, to get involved with the movement and participate in the discourse, and most importantly, to come out and vote in November.
Queerness isn’t the only theme touched upon in the album. Furman is Jewish, and quite observant at that. Naturally, theological themes permeate the record. He prefaced the slow but powerful song, “God Lifts Up The Lowly,” by warning the audience, “This is one of my many theology songs. First you thought we were fun, now you think we’re weird.” But really, how could anyone think it weird? It explores hope and strength, elements critical to the survival of any marginalized group. He also played the soft, swelling “Psalm 151,” which includes the line from which the album title comes: “The government went bad, we got a raw deal / A transangelic exodus on four wheels.” The religious elements are ever present by not overpowering. They’re subtle but necessary. The story is about an angel, after all.
Furman and The Visions also played songs from the two albums that precede Transangelic Exodus: Day of the Dog (2013, through Bar/None Records) and Perpetual Motion People (2015, their first record with Bella Union). “Ordinary Life” from Perpetual Motion People is an autobiographical song delving into a bout of depression Furman experienced while living in Boston. “This is about fall 2009, Davis Square…f*cked up time,” he said. Furman attended Tufts University in Boston, so he’s no stranger to the area. This introduction was met with cheers from the audience because of the relative proximity of Allston to Davis Square. Attendees knew exactly where he was talking about, and that makes the song all the more relatable. Before the penultimate song of the evening, Furman asked the audience, “Do you like Kate Bush?” and when he was met with silence, he answered his own question, “…I like Kate Bush.” Then he launched into a cover of “Hounds of Love.” He ended the evening with “I Wanna Destroy Myself,” the punk-ish first track off Day of the Dog, not about ruining the world around you, but rather self-directed destruction. The audience was left shattered from his incredible performance.
Anna Burch is a singer-songwriter based in Detroit. Her first album, Quit the Curse, was released on February 2 and is available now on Polyvinyl Records. Check out her music, tour dates, and more here: https://annaburchmusic.com/home/.
Ezra Furman’s new record, Transangelic Exodus, came out on February 9 on Bella Union. He’s on tour with his band, The Visions: Ben Joseph (keyboards), Jorgen Jorgensen (bass and cello), Sam Durkes (drums and percussion), and Tim Sandusky (sax). Check out his music, tour dates, and more here: http://ezrafurman.com/.
You can learn more about Senate Bill 2407 Massachusetts Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Veto Referendum here: https://ballotpedia.org/Massachusetts_Gender_Identity_Anti-Discrimination_Veto_Referendum_(2018). Don’t forget to register to vote and exercise your constitutional right to make your voice heard.