Venue: Crystal Ballroom – Portland, Oregon
Date: October 25, 2007
Opener: A Fine Frenzy
It's been almost seven months since Brandi Carlile's breakthrough album The Story (the third of her career) hit stores, and as long since she and her band by the same name hit the road in support of the record. That's a long time to be cooped up in a bus, sleep-deprived and lacking for a good meal. So it's no wonder the band looked a little road-weary at the start of their set in one of my favorite venues in the Pacific Northwest—Portland's Crystal Ballroom.
Opener, A Fine FrenzyBefore them, California's A Fine Frenzy played a charming set of piano-driven pop tunes. Their leader, singer/songwriter Alison Sudol sang in a sweet, powerful soprano, working through a seemingly impromptu snap-along cover of "Fever" as movingly as her own quiet heartbreak tune "Almost Lover." Backed by an impeccably talented percussionist and keyboard player, Sudol proved most arresting during the heartbreak portion of the show, where her voice curled perfectly around the melodies of loss and unrequited affection. The crowd, many of whom were clearly unfamiliar with her work at the beginning of the night, was charmed to near-silence at several intervals.
The Main EventCarlile didn't have to work as hard to win the crowd's attention, but of course she did, anyway.
The set started with a swelling electric guitar-driven instrumental, punctuated by Carlile and twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth's gorgeous, intuitive harmonies. Carlile then switched to an acoustic Martin to kick off the show with "My Song," a choice rock-infused tune from The Story. This was followed by "Wasted," which, while well instrumentalized, seemed to drag a bit in tempo.
It wasn't until the fourth number of the night, "Follow," from the band's 2005 self-titled debut, that something snapped, and the energy level sky-rocketed during a mid-song chorus. The lines, "Feel the rain coming down, it reminds me of who I used to be / but now it's nothing more than a memory," seemed to awaken in the band an electricity they would ride for the remainder of the set.
An All-Acoustic Mini-SetHalf-way through the evening, the guitar tech whipped out a trio of stools for Brandi and the twins to sit on, and they embarked into a more mellow, moving acoustic mini-set—Carlile strumming the Martin parlor guitar I’d been eyeing all night. This included "Happy," "Cannonball" (featuring "the twindigo girls") and the completely unplugged "How These Days." For the latter, the trio emerged in front of the monitors, the drummer took to a stool with a tambourine and maraca, and cellist Josh Neumann unplugged, as well. Carlile, sans microphone, asked the crowd to be very quiet, and then lit into the new tune with a fire, presence and vocal power that made the crowd almost wish the whole set could be played in such a manner.
The song itself was a nice, country-tinged romp of a tune about being on the road away from those you care about. Here's hoping it winds up on the next record.
Brandi Carlile at the PianoAs polished and tight as the band has become over the past months since their Seattle listening party, the finest moments of this show came when Carlile took to the piano. Admitting she was nervous about the prospect of messing up her piano part, the songs she played there were marked by a raw artistry that only served to highlight the songs themselves, their lyrics and the honesty behind them.
Before breaking into a new bittersweet, heart-warming love song (titled aptly, "Love Songs"), she asked the crowd to bear with her as she "warmed up" the keyboard with a verse from "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Outstanding EncoreFinally, the main set over with, Carlile returned for two encores. The first included what has become a signature tune for the band: a cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," where cellist Neumann pulled a sweet cello spin, and guitarist Tim Hanseroth once again delivered an exquisite solo.
The final encore featured a mostly solo Carlile, sharing more brand new songs. "Same Ol' You" was a toungue-in-cheek classic-style country song she wrote when she realized how, despite her lifelong reverence for classic country music (to make her point, she sang excerpts from "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and Loretta Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough"), she'd never written a classic-style country song. "Same Ol' You" was easily a highlight of the night, succeeding not only in using every country cliché she could fit into a three-minute song, but also a great memorable melody and yodeling at the end.
In contrast, "That Year" took the award for saddest song of the evening, as Carlile wrote it remembering a friend who committed suicide when they were teenagers. Marked by the simplicity of the lyrics, melody and guitar part, it was Carlile's exceptionally clear, emotive voice that carried this tune above the near silence of the crowd.
After being joined onstage by her sister Tiffany for a touching rendition of "Calling All Angels," Carlile returned to the piano for Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." I've seen her perform this song three times now, and have no reservations in saying this night's performance was possibly the most beautiful rendition anyone aside from Cohen himself has ever given. Still unsure of her piano part, there were a few instrumental hiccups, but that didn't matter. Blessed with an instrument as powerful and as tamed as Brandi Carlile's voice, the song soared through its naturally mind-blowing melody, until nothing mattered but the song itself.
See photos from this and other Brandi Carlile concerts.
Brandi Carlile is on tour now. For more information and tour dates, visit the Brandi Carlile Web site