Brandi Carlile Sings Her 'Story' and a Soulful Tribute to Aretha Franklin in L.A.
“I can’t believe we’re playing the Greek!” Brandi Carlile exclaimed early into her performance in Los Angeles on Friday night (Aug. 17). She humbly, if predictably, checked it off her bucket list before sharing a memory of how Los Angeles used to intimidate her and band mates. She soon added that the city now “Feels like home... like we could belong here.”
Indeed, Carlile and her crew have the chops and the songs to belong anywhere they like. To be sure, there were at least two must-do numbers awaiting. Justly proud of its imprimatur as one of Barack Obama’s favorite songs of 2018, “The Joke” ascended and has become the anthem Carlile’s wider audience has been quietly awaiting since her 2007 career-defining hit “The Story.” It was clear from the outset that the placement of both tracks in her set would mean everything for the show’s arc.
That said, Carlile is hardly bereft of further audience-pleasers, and February’s By the Way, I Forgive You, her sixth album, is a remarkably even and winning collection. Logically enough Carlile’s most fully realized collection to date, it boasts a coherence few others can claim in these short-attention-span days of streaming single songs.
Across its satisfying 43-plus minutes there’s more than a little emotional wreckage, judiciously balanced with steady redemption. Musically, it’s not an easy item to wrangle into a genre. There’s no denying it’s a hearty slice of Americana -- it did win her nominations for the upcoming Americana Awards for Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Song (“The Joke”) -- and correspondingly hit the top of Billboard’s charts for both rock and folk albums. But one of its strikingly unusual aspects is the trio of powerful yet delicate string arrangements by the late master of that art, Paul Buckmaster. “The Joke” has been described as a country-rock aria, and credits must be doled out not only to Carlile for her searching artistry but to co-producers Dave Cobb (who's recently worked with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and more) and Shooter Jennings.
Jennings would join in on piano on a couple tunes, and Carlile would voice a warm remembrance of Buckmaster’s instantly forgiven creative tyranny that involved “throwing things” in the studio. But the focus of her show has long been Carlile at the mic (and jack-rabbiting about stage in the feistier jams), flanked by Phil and Tim Hanseroth, the twins who serve as her deeply attuned co-writers and accompanists. She sweetly twitted Phil, joshing to the crowd that they were calling him “Phil-ary Clinton” for his manner of greeting audiences with a raised fist and I-see-you gestures, which she replicated in a rather wicked Hillary impersonation. On an evening in which she would nail impressions and deeply immersive takes on Robert Plant and Joni Mitchell, it showed how willing Carlile is to tramp down the fourth wall and invite us in.
“Every Time I Hear That Song" kicked off the concert as it does the recent album, and it reinforced her instincts for invitingly melodic song structures while posting the alert that we’d be swimming in her also reliable lyrical ambivalence: “Now that’s twice you broke my heart now, the first was way back when/And to know you’re still unhappy only makes it break again."
Carlile was turning 30 when she wrote the next song in the set, “Raise Hell,” a kind of declaration of artistic freedom, and now at 37 she’s threshing through memories with even greater poignance. After cracking open one of the must-dos with “The Joke” several songs in, she must have been anticipating the daunting cover songs the evening would bring, but she took her time delivering two fascinating intros. For “Sugartooth,” a plaintive tale about an acquaintance who could never be summed up as “just a junkie,” she explained how having a child (and now a second one) had led her to what she called (to a good laugh) “debilitating empathy": "People try to blame him for making bad choices/But he was only listening to the deeper voices..."
She approached “Fulton County Jane Doe” similarly, as it came out of a real-life local tragedy. On tour, the band heard about "Jane Doe," whose autopsy revealed she’s once had a child, and had a tattoo of Jesus on her wrist, but no name. In a moment that made the crowd come out of their reverent hush with applause, Carlile insisted she would at least have a song.
With the audience fully given over to wherever she may have wanted to go, Carlile could have proceeded solely from her own songbook, but she pleased and slightly flabbergasted the open-air assemblage by moving into Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with assurance, and then, as if to top it, Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”.
An audience still quietly mourning Aretha Franklin still might not have dared hope for a tribute, but with a winning boldness, Carlile would go there. “We lost the Queen of Soul,” she lamented, and with full humility added, “She’s in Paradise…and we’re about to attempt a tribute.” There are few performers around who could achieve the success Carlile would have covering “Do Right Woman” and “Respect,” and if that put her rollicking encore number, “Hold Out Your Hand,” a bit in the shade, the celebration of Aretha was well worth it.
Sandwiched in the set’s end was a compact trilogy of highly emblematic choices. “Whatever You Do,” with its candid examination of the ashes of a relationship, and “Party of One,” reminiscent of Ms. Mitchell's tone, both scored. And always and inalterably, there was room for “The Story”, with its deliberate strums that built to a holler she delivered with a knowing grin. Undergirding the comments Carlile scattered through the show expressing solidarity with immigrant and LBGTQ communities, the song is shot through with youthful defiance and hard-earned wisdom, surely in part derived from navigating society as a gay woman.
It’s no mystery how "The Story" became a performance classic, giving way as it does to the operatic wonders of Carlile’s fiercely mood-shifting vocals, even as the twins once again demonstrated their invaluable chops and psychic support. To hear it once more, a perfectly but boldly constructed slice of enduring musical magic, was a welcome part of the night’s success. Carlile can go wherever she wants with her gifts, and at the Greek she proved once more her stature as a singer/songwriter who supplies ready pleasures with brave, inspiring depth.