On a picture-perfect evening at Iroquois Amphitheater, an enthusiastic crowd of fans gathered for an evening that felt as much like a celebration as a concert. Clutching cameras and posters, snapping pictures, meeting and greeting one another with smiles and hugs, Brandi Carlile fans are an enthusiastic bunch. And it's easy to see why: it's really not that often that we get to see a woman leading a headlining, kick-ass band with quite the same level of confidence and charisma. This is a woman who collaborates with Elton John and can get Kris Kristofferson to star in her videos. Brandi Carlile has arrived, in case there was still any doubt about that.
Before the stage was set for Carlile, the earnestly appealing singer and songwriter Andy Hull of Manchester orchestra opened the show with an acoustic guitar performance. His voice reminds me a bit of Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, and he could certainly go up against Pecknold, beard for beard. All kidding aside, he has a beautiful voice and his guitar work shows a lot of finesse and versatility.
But of course, everyone was buzzing in anticipation of Carlile's entrance. Far from the stripped down shows of not too many years ago, the stage was filled with smoke machines, light stands, drums, a piano, cello and violin, racks of guitars, and -- symbolizing her reverence for music history -- an old, crank phonograph that played as the musicians took the stage. Carlile made her entrance as the phonograph gave way to the opening chords of her new foot-stomper, "Raise Hell," a fitting way to start the show. Flanked as always by bassist Phil Hanseroth (now her brother-in-law, to boot) and his identical twin, Tim Hanseroth on lead guitar, Carlile's backing band includes drummer Konrad Meissner, pianist and cellist Josh Neumann, and Jeb Bows on violin and mandolin, all of whom got to showcase their individual talents as the night went on.
As Carlile pointed out during a break, the recording of Bear Creek marked the tenth year for her and the twins as a band, and the concert showed off both the strength of their back catalog and the ongoing artistry that resulted in a highly personal album that ignores the strictures of genre. Older songs appeared in new arrangements, taking advantage of the added strings in "What Can I Say" and "Before it Breaks." Carlile pulled the band into a circle to share the loose, acoustic recording style that they enjoyed in the studio for "Caroline" and "Keep Your Heart Young" with Phil Hanseroth on upright bass and Bows on mandolin for an old-style country pickin' jamboree. Carlile then performed a moving, solo acoustic version of "Looking Out" that she dedicated to Veterans in the crowd (she gives free tickets to Veterans for many of her shows).
The promised new cover was revealed as Carlile seated herself at the piano and announced, "Get ready for the drama!" Carlile always goes big on covers, unafraid to bust out some Elton John or Johnny Cash. This time she tackled, with undisguised glee -- Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." While it doesn't seem as fully inspired as her rousing version of "Folsom Prison Blues," Carlile and band are obviously having fun with it, and the audience seemed to enjoy it as well. She makes these sort of things seem effortless, and of course, has the powerful vocals to pull it off. It is her amazing voice that takes a crowd-pleasing anthem like "The Story" and makes it viscerally emotional, even electrifying. Winding up the set was "Turpentine," the power ballad, "I'll Still Be There," and "Dying Day," which sustained the energy well into the encore.
The orchestral "Pride and Joy" was thrilling, leading into Bear Creek's piano-driven, soulful meditation, "That Wasn't Me." It was announced as the last song, but Carlile treated the audience to a final solo performance of Leonard Cohen's hauntingly beautiful "Hallelujah." It's a song that she has made particularly her own, her voice rising and falling over the words like a prayer. It's amazing how pin-drop quiet so many people can be at once, no one wanting to miss a note. It's also a sign of respect, and Carlile is an artist who truly deserves it -- a strong, talented, and attractive woman, who doesn't have to rely on stiletto heels, shellacked hair, a phalanx of dancers, and a trapeze to get attention or win praise. Brandi is just herself -- grateful for her success and genuinely affectionate toward the fans who have helped her achieve it. And she just keeps getting better.
Andy Hull opened the show.
Brandi Carlile and her band
[Photo Credits: Brandie Story]