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Originally published Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 1:13 PM

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Laurie Anderson's 'Dirtday!' digressed, but the audience dug it

Laurie Anderson's loose-knit solo show "Dirtday!" came to Seattle on Oct. 20, 2012, taking on just about every topic imaginable.

Seattle Times arts writer

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The new solo show by veteran performance artist Laurie Anderson opens with note-bending sea surges of sound from her electronically enhanced violin and keyboard sampler. As music, it feels intentionally formless and marginally controlled. The same could be said of the show's text, too.

"Dirtday!" is about, well, everything: evolution, the post 9/11 security state, popes on other planets, tent cities, our health-care system, sleep, dreams, music, regrets, superstition, love and, emphatically, death. The show's tenuous focus is on "the gap between the moment that is expiring and the one that is rising, luminous and empty" — at least, that's a line that gets repeated.

At Meany Theater on Saturday night, in her white shirt, dark tie and short, tousled hairdo, Anderson looked like a rumpled, androgynous office boy auditioning for the role of Ariel.

Her vocal delivery, as always, had a breathy, tense, oracular hush to it. She knows how to linger before pronouncing her next word, teasing you with what it might be. Given her off-center perceptions, that next word is often mighty unpredictable, whether she's asking why Darwin once wrote, "The peacock's tail makes me sick," or wondering why real-life conversations can't come furnished with a "progress bar," like a computer download does, to let you know how close they are to being over.

Her 63rd birthday prompts her to think of the 21 years she's spent sleeping. This sleeping/dreaming self, she points out, is now old enough to drink and vote — if only it could wake up. Other concerns include the way Alzheimer's patients manage to hang onto the "small pleasantries of life" rather than its "flashes of wisdom or bravery or wonder."

Several anecdotes — one about a visit to a tent city in New Jersey where the "tent town social worker" isn't quite what she seems, another about the euthanasia-or-not decision she had to face as her beloved rat terrier's health failed — move into more somber territory, and Anderson comes at them in a vivid way that keeps you off-balance.

Humor is Anderson's strong point, though one or two jokes fall flat, including the one that lends the show its title. (What if we called our planet "Dirt" instead of "Earth"?) A few threads of thought — notably one about the upcoming elections — aren't satisfyingly followed up.

On Saturday, Anderson's lower register when she was using her electronically altered "man's voice" sometimes got lost in the ambient wall of sound. And it's odd how similar her approach to storytelling is to that of some stand-up comedians who string jokes and anecdotes together without any special regard for structure.

In past concerts she's had a band with her, and the musical rapport between players has given her shows a dynamic that substitutes for structure. Anderson, solo, can't quite muster the same effect, and there are moments in "Dirtday!" when the show seems to end and then start up all over again.

Nevertheless, the crowd loved it, giving her a standing ovation and eliciting an encore from her: a simple plaintive tune on her violin.

Anderson is most enchanting aphorism by aphorism, even if there's little to tie all the one-liners together.

My favorite: "You've never been to Paris, but you miss it anyway — more than any other place you've never been."

She makes nowhere sound like an awfully nice place to go.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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