“I got blings!” exclaims Melanie Valera, as the iPad hanging around her neck suddenly flicks to a life-size array of heavy cartoon chains. The one-woman tour-de-force that is Tender Forever, along with a team of techies, is pulling out all the stops for her premiere PICA performance. “Blings” aren’t the half of it.
A helper wheeled Valera in on a hand-truck, and she stood silently at center-stage as assistants set up a mysterious array of gear: free-standing lighting rigs, large screens, an arsenal of laptops. Other attendants tweaked Valera’s hair, removed her jacket, straightened her shirt. This process went on and on, building up a kind of humorous suspense. Valera began hopping, fighter-style, punching the air, rolling her shoulders, readying for the match.
As the electronic backing track began, Valera donned a hooded glow-in-the-dark cloak, and flapped slowly around the stage like a luminous mantarey, floating in darkness while she sang.
Flashback to 2004. Anacortes, Washington’s, What-The-Heckfest. Broad daylight, 15-person crowd. Valera, booked in a gazebo in a park, has done a couple numbers on guitar, and now presses “play” on her electronica tracks, determined to kick off a dance party. Blinking in the bright afternoon light, a couple of her French friends comply, but she otherwise struggles to “make a moment.” Later to surface than other lauded K Records solo gals Mirah and The Blow (booked later the same day, in indoor venues), the French emigrant faces the classic singer/songwriter impasse: lower your own expectations, or raise the crowd’s.
Back to now. “I got blings!” Valera exclaims, tearing off her cloak, and repeating it several times like a reassuring mantra. “It works! And I have this microphone on my ear, like Justin Timberlake and Madonna wears. I always wanted one of these and it feels so good, you guys! TBA festival is like, this famous festival, known all over the world, and finally I’m here. I wished so hard and it’s my dream,” Valera effuses. The iPad, to illustrate her gushing heart, begins to strobe red in time with the next track, while invisible assistants hold laptops that also flash along. All we see now, are three flashing squares, guided by Valera’s emotive voice.
Throughout the rest of the set, it’s that voice that continues to take center stage, delivering casually excellent singing, but even better personal narration. Valera, still dancing lightly like a fighter, works her way through a series of carefully prepared surprises, each more elaborate and more amusing than the last, only to finish with an impassioned improvised benediction, synced to a screen programmed to respond to the twinkle of audience cell-phones. “I want to sing in beautiful places with nice sound,” Valera confesses to the winking digital fireflies. “Not dark bars anymore. I want people to come see me, and to buy my CD’s. I learned English five years ago, this language which you speak very loudly I must say….”
While a stunned and enraptured crowd looks on, Valera climbs back on the hand-truck, and slowly rolls away. But we’re left with no doubt: this is Tender Forever’s time to shine.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Tender Forever plays the Kennedy School on September 24. “There won’t be all these things like this time,” Valera cautions, “It will just be me, jumping around.” Take Culturephile’s word for it: That’s plenty worthwhile.