Review: Brandi Carlile goes a little bit country at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater
It could be that Brandi Carlile was country when country wasn’t cool.
She grew up in the '80s and '90s listening to the Judds and Grand Ole Opry music in her home outside Seattle (home of grunge, yes, but country, not so much). She loved Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline.
She later found inspiration in Elton John, Indigo Girls and Jeff Buckley, whose influences (not to mention guest appearances on her albums by the Indigo Girls and Sir Elton himself) are found on her first three studio albums. That said, this pop singer with a folk-roots base and a hint of torch and twang is about to rein in a whole new fan base.
On several songs during her 17-song set at a sold-out Capitol Theatre in Clearwater Friday night, the Americana-folky-pop idol with a cult fanbase was not shy about showing her country side.
She, in fact, flaunted her inner Johnny Cash.
For years she has covered Cash and Cline classics amongst her introspective if dark and often sorrowful originals, many with recurring themes of leaving, falling apart, longing, forgiveness and heartache. Brandi’s well-commanded voice can mimic the husky power of Melissa Etheridge one second and the high lilt of Sarah McLachlan the next.
On Friday night, her voice soared along her sidekicks Tim and Phil Hanseroth (aka “The Twins”) as she took the quaint theatre’s 485 patrons on a roller coaster of vocal swoops and swoons. With the trio’s voices, two acoustic guitars and one acoustic bass (Phil), they entertained an appreciative crowd in their matching ensemble of modern fedoras, long-sleeved button-down shirts in various shades of blue, skin-tight black pants, and boots (for stompin’).
Brandi opened solo with a deftly finger-picked Looking Out from her 2009 release Give Up the Ghost. When she dragged out the last word of the song’s line Someone loves you, her strong vibrato emanated throughout the audience. This toe-tapping version also differed greatly from the recorded one, and would have fit in a campfire setting with the doggies retiring.
The twins joined her on stage as she launched into the catchy pop song Dreams (which seems to always be playing when I’m in Tampa International Airport or at the 38th Avenue N Publix in St. Petersburg), carrying an anthem-like quality even without a full band. Brandi belted out the lines like she was filling a stadium: I keep it to myself / I know what it means / I can’t have you / But I have dreams. But even with the song’s high energy, the crowd – with a fairer share of gray and balding heads than I expected to see – stayed comfy in their seats.
Brandi let her slight twang loose during covers of the Beatles’ vaguely country and western I’ve Just Seen a Face, and Patsy Cline’s Crazy.
The country theme continued with Brandi’s introduction of songs from her forthcoming album (the online buzz is that it will be called Bear Creek after the studio in which it was recorded). A Hard Way Home was a bouncy little boot-stomping number which brought to mind Tanya Tucker in sound and energy, but the lyrics were in line with some of Carlile’s previous darker work: I wanna leave this town / Fake my death and never be found.
Raise Hell was another new song that has the potential to put Brandi on the country charts. She wrote it when she turned 30 last year, which she said made her “inconsolable” and gave her “the kind of fear and regret that only a song can cure.”
The lyrics are undoubtedly Cash-inspired: I dug a hole inside my heart to put you in your grave / At this point it was you and me, and mama didn't raise no slave / You took my face in both your hands and looked me in the eye / and I went down with such a force that in your grave I lay. Then she wailed on the chorus, “You gotta raise hell!” (And in between lines of this hard-driven, dramatic narrative, she managed to chew gum.)
She pulled out a few of her tried-and-true crowd-pleasing tricks including stepping to the front of the stage away from the mic to sing Dying Day, as well as dividing the audience into one giant three-part harmony choir to back her up on Turpentine. For this, one section followed Tim’s low harmonies, the center sections sang melody with Brandi, and rest tried to follow along with Phil’s high falsetto. (“Like Jordan Knight from New Kids on the Block high,” joked Brandi.)
The audience also seemed to enjoy some personal touches, including getting the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to her soundman while delivering cake to him, and also announcing a new family member. “Phil’s got a little baby girl on the way and this is going to be her name,” she said before singing Josephine from her 2007 release The Story, produced by T-Bone Burnett. (And kudos to the birthday boy for delivering a crisp, clean sound with a nice balance on the stringed instruments and lyrics that were clearly discernible.)
After catching a few Brandi shows over the years – which have become increasingly polished with points of predictablility – I was relieved to see her mix it up a little and show off her new stuff. If you missed her, mark your calendars for April 21, where she’ll headline the free Erase Hate Festival at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa.
Oh, and you might think about dusting off those old cowboy boots. Because country is about to get a whole lot cooler.
Unexpected opener Lucy Wainwright Roche charmed the audience with her set, a tough task considering only a small portion raised their hands when she asked if anyone had ever heard of her. Down-home and unpretentious, she chatted about shuffleboard, Sunpasses, Scientology and the Awesome Original Second Time Arounders Marching Band between her mostly sorrowful and sweet ballads. She also was impressed with Winter the dolphin.
The Brooklyn-based daughter of folkie icons Suzzy Roche and Loudon Wainwright III was so at ease that she asked the crowd to join her in song (because, she says, on Facebook “you can be fake friends with real humans, buy fake drinks and start fake farms … but you can’t have a sing-along on Facebook.”) With that, she broke into Bruce Springsteen’s Hungry Heart with the back-up of the audience.
She closed with one of her thoughtful originals, Open Season, an ode to Coney Island in winter: The ocean calls us like we’ve never been / One hundred games that we will never win / Close your eyes and hear the teacups spin as it begins to snow.
Her winter song proved to be a great warm-up to the main act.
-- Lara Cerri, tbt*. Photos: Ted McLaren, tbt*