|Photo by Jason Gonulsen|
Some people get religion
Some people get the truth
I never get the truth
I never get the truth
I want to get this out of the way, even if I've already said it numerous times: Brandi Carlile is ridiculously good at what she does. If you haven't found her songs, or maybe think she's just another "singer-songwriter" who will lull you to sleep, let's put a couple things to rest.
One, Carlile, as she proved last night at The Blue Note, is a flawless solo performer, as special as they come, complete with confidence and an absolute engaging stage presence, both of which complement her once-in-a-generation voice and songs. Two, as wonderful as she is by herself, she's just as good with her full band in tow, fully capable of "rocking out," "slaying," "killing it," or whatever it is that your favorite band might do on stage.
But, last night was about Carlile's ability to present her musical gifts while alone. And sometimes, that's greater than the sum of what any band can offer.
Let me explain.
There's a common misconception about live music that a person alone with a guitar is somehow weakened or at the mercy of his or her limitations -- that after a few songs, they'll all start to sound the same. I hear this all the time. And I don't buy it.
The truth is that is an extreme case of flawed thinking. The options a musician has while alone, with no booming electric guitar, bass, and drums, are indeed limitless -- and it can be a beautiful thing, if you're really willing to listen (and in some cases, like last night, participate). Perhaps it's the repressive idea that a solo performer always has to come off as sad and lonely, tortured, boring, too serious, or has to deliver a song in a sub par state, in terms of energy of potential.
Or maybe it's simply that not every artist out there can make a solo performance seem special. Carlile, thankfully, understands the task at hand. For example, a few songs into her set, when it was clear that the audience was ready to give her whatever she wanted on this evening, Carlile stepped away from the microphone, walked to the front of the stage and delivered one of her best songs, "What Can I Say," without the help of amplification.
Before she started, she explained that her attempt to bring everyone together in the room might be futile. And sure, with a full bar in the back of the venue, with clanking bottles, and a few conversations, the song could have derailed. But, her attempt at a communal moment worked -- we sang loudly with Carlile, who, I'm sure was hard to hear in the rear balcony.
To hear her voice wasn't really the point, though. The moment came soon after her solo version of "Dreams," where some of the audience literally stomped and hollered, and Carlile was able to channel that energy in a different way, having the room in her versatile grasp at the beginning of the show. When something like this happens -- and works -- it establishes a few things, most importantly showing the crowd that Carlile was in tune with every facet of the show: engagement, pacing, flexibility, grace.
This allowed Carlile to do whatever she wanted the rest of the evening. She gave us stellar versions of Radiohead's "Creep," Roy Orbison's "It's Over," and even told a story about Kings of Leon's "Sex On Fire," which was requested.
"My mom called me on tour once and said, 'Brandi you need to get me this CD -- it's got a song that goes 'Ohhhh...this sex is on fire,'" she told us. "I was happy when that voicemail was finally deleted from my phone."
Carlile even tried out a few new songs, one of which was performed for the second time ever, called "Christmas 1984." "I think I consider this the real first time, because I'm not nervous, and I'm excited for you to hear it," she said. "Not all Christmas songs need to be full of joy and peacefulness. I think this is about how we fight materialism."
There was another new one called "Raise Hell," an upbeat tune that Carlile wrote before she recently turned 30, an "inconsolable time" for the artist. Its message matched her sometimes renegade spirit, and it's sure to be a standout on her next studio album due in 2012.
Later, when she gave the crowd a choice of hearing a Steve Nicks or Patsy Cline cover, and the crowd overwhelmingly screamed for Nicks, she delivered both -- "Landslide" and "Crazy," which made the crowd, uh, crazy -- but not as crazy as her next song, "The Story," the main-set closer. While "The Story" is perhaps the one song that is better heard with her full band, Carlile held nothing back, delivering the chorus with passion. "All of these lines across my face," Carlile sang, "tell you the story of who I am."
Carlile returned with an encore that included two songs from Give Up The Ghost, "Pride and Joy" and "That Year," and two more covers, John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery," which featured an audience member who was invited on stage to sing with Carlile, and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the show closer.
Of course, "Hallelujah" is often covered by many, perhaps exhausted to the point of producing a sigh, depending on your point of view. But, Carlile's version was beautiful and patient; it sounded fresh, like she had written it on her bus that afternoon. Most importantly, it left everyone in the room with one final live-music memory of 2011.