Ruby (photo: Patric Carver)
The Ruby sound and experience slips between genres and contexts. The same can be said for Rankine herself. During her chat with me, she teetered between warmth and childlike mischief. When asked to describe the evolution of Ruby, Rankine answered, “Well, I was in a band, and then I took some time to raise a child and some chickens, and now this is what I am doing.” However, she lit up when asked what the highlight of her current tour has been thus far. She described singing a song with Pig Face that she had not previously performed as, “Oh, it was great, I looked out into the audience and saw grown men crying!” Her eyes, outlined in cakes of blue shadow grew wide and bright as she recounted the thrill of sparking emotion in her audience.
Supported by opening acts ContainHer and Halou, Ruby’s performance was just as spectacularly divided as Rankine herself. Standing on stage solo but surrounded by her various gadgets, the elfish Rankine seemed exponentially present, as if she were the first person to take command of the stage and was setting the precedent for showmanship.
The show began with a jarring performance of “Tiny Meat” from the 1995 album Salt Peter. Though the song is now old enough to buy booze in this country, Rankine managed to make it sound positively innovative and fresh. It seemed almost to take on a new plane of being — not quite music, but more of a Laurie Anderson-like performance. That is, if Laurie Anderson were an approachable, affable human being the likes of Rankine. However, this bravado fizzled out quickly as a flustered Rankine dug out her reading glasses and transformed herself from a genre-fluxing champion of musical performance art to a bewildered human trying to coax her various machines into cooperation. Normally, this sort of interruption would have killed the momentum, but Rankine’s charm and wit made the interval of technological difficulties nearly as entertaining as the music itself. “They can send shit to Mars,” Rankine grumbled as she fiddled with her instruments, “but we’ve still got fucking wires everywhere down here. Fuck me!”
Thankfully, with some help from the audience, Rankine identified the problem and woke up her virtual orchestra to continue the show. I would like to believe, though, that if the machines failed to be revived, Rankine would have soldiered on without them. Her voice was certainly solid enough to carry the evening alone. It hovers somewhere between Regina Spektor and Laura Nyro in terms of the timbre. It isn’t the most elegant sound, but it is rich and vibrant. Most singers on the radio today have balsa wood voices — throwaway, temporary, and in need of great embellishment to appear of any consequence. Rankine’s voice, on the other hand, was hardwood oak.
This was proven when she did a spidery rendition of the Dolly Parton classic, “Jolene,” with flawless delivery — “Jolene” is one of my favorite songs, and I’ve always somewhat resented artists who feel that they can recapture Parton’s work. However, Rankine did not just recapture, she reinvented — perhaps even for the better. One of the critical flaws in Parton’s original recording of the song is the Parton herself does not come off as a woman who would — or even could — be left by a man. However, in Rankine’s version, you can sense the quivering desperation. Her voice wavered between being palpably vulnerable and darkly threatening. If I were Jolene, I would have stepped back.
During our conversation, Rankin confessed to me, “I don’t like it when things fit together too well. I get bored.” The components of her show seemed to be at times illogically strewn together. Lyrics did not match with the spirit of the melody; Rankine fluctuated between being in command and being controlled by technological difficulties. So, in a way, it did not fit. Ultimately, though, the show was one animal — a complete experience. I would not have traded any of its components. Rankine was simply lovely —perplexing, provocative, and engaging. She was all of the things you want in a performer.
After the encore, Rankin alluded to her wares for sale at the merch table by saying, “If you buy loads of things then I’ll get to fly home!” I don’t know how much of an incentive that was for folks to buy. I, for one, would like to keep her on this side of the pond.