Brandi Carlile is well used to both covering and being covered. Last year, she was the recipient of a tribute album that had Adele, Dolly Parton and Pearl Jam, among others, doing her songs. She can give as well as she gets, and on her current tour, she’s dropped in everything from “Madman Across the Water” to “Stand By Your Man.”
Friday night at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, she did bravura vocal turns on two of the songs that have turned into tour staples for her in recent weeks, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” But, given the week’s sad news events, she was saving the most literally respectful for last.
For the encore, Carlile invited My Morning Jacket main man Jim James up to duet on two Aretha Franklin standards, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” followed by “Respect.” James, although sounding grittier than usual, might not have been the most obvious choice to slip on Otis Redding like an evening jacket. But it didn’t really matter when Carlile had the chops to go full Ree and wail enough to make both of them sound like a regal-soul couple. Short of having a true R&B master in the house, Greek attendees had the luck of the draw when it came to being in the right place with the right singer for one of possibly hundreds of impromptu Franklin salutes on the major stages of America this weekend.
Although she can effectively play one on the Greek’s big screens for a few minutes, Carlile isn’t a Queen of Soul, nor would she pretend to be. But you could call her a queen of solicitousness — that is to say, someone who exemplifies the spirit of what she calls “debilitating empathy” enough to make her shows feel like must-attends in as particularly obdurate and brutal a time as 2018. She’s too good a songwriter to come off as very preachy in her carefully crafted character sketches or even more obvious anthems. But as she spoke eloquently between songs at the Greek about matters of the collective heart, it was clear that this is a performer who’s looking to put the “care” back in “TCB.”
The highlight of her two-hour set wasn’t even a musical one… and that’s saying a lot, in a show that includes the twin peaks of “The Story” and “The Joke.” It was her lengthy spoken prelude to “The Mother,” in which she proved a skilled monologist, with a touch of the standup comic. Carlile relayed the lead-up to and aftermath of the birth of her first child, and how completely unprepared she felt for every moment along the way — even though “I’m gay; there’s no excuse. It was no surprise.” Talking about her initially emotionless response to her wife giving birth, and how she tried feigning crying and was “Googling sociopath in the delivery room,” Carlile urged that “people need to be more honest” about their emotions, or lack of them, as new parents. And: “I feel like it’s important, even in a great state like California, to stand up in front of you and talk about my family.” (That’s a variation on a line she uses in other tour dates, too, although she’s left off the “even” and “great” in some less famously gay-affirming states.)
Outside of these personal moments, sexual identity stories or politics don’t figure much into Carlile’s songs — although she’s not afraid to toss the word “girl” into a lyric, either, as she did in the night’s most epic ballad, “Party of One,” which she prefaced as being the answer to “if you ever want to know what would happen if you had a catastrophic fight with your spouse and then you stayed up all night getting drunk and listening to Joni Mitchell.” That was one of nine songs performed from her excellent new album “By the Way, I Forgive You,” most of which were also themed, not shockingly, around variations on the title concept. “It’s not to forgive any one person, really,” she explained. “It’s just because the word’s been so whitewashed and so dominated and culturized by the white evangelical take on Christianity… but really, it’s a radical, filthy concept, and a difficult thing to do. I’d love to take that word back, and give it back to the struggle, to forgive the world for being the way it is, and forgive life for being hard and killing your parents and all that.”
The “all that” played out over a couple of deceptively cheerful-sounding, almost Southern-pop-ish songs about the unhappily deceased — “Sugartooth,” about the fatal overdose of a high school classmate, and “Fulton County Jane Doe,” a tune that came out of the desire to honor a real woman whose body had gone unidentified and unclaimed for 30 years in Georgia. These songs were heavier in theme than near-jubilant execution. And on occasion things got legit, straight-up light, as in the raucous “Mainstream Kid,” which allowed the string quartet to take five while the rest of the band did a pretty convincing imitation of thrashy indie-rockers, or even the brief instrumental snippet of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” that provided a segue out of a drum solo into “Dreams.”
As the covers went, her version of the Led Zeppelin (by way of Joan Baez) blues ballad, “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” felt like the least necessary number of the night — her ability to go where Robert Plant has gone, vocally, was more of a stunt than a personal digression, albeit pretty good as stunts go. Taking on Mitchell’s “A Case of You” was different; although she’s hardly the first outsider to take it in, it provided a valuable window into where her own writing has come from. And it also provided a glimpse of how perfect she can be as a singer, since that’s something you almost sense her striving to avoid in her own material. “A Case of You” was the first time during the night when you realized she has masterful vibrato — and that’s a good forestalling, since she’s otherwise emphasizing the edgier character of her voice over any contest-winner side.
There’s one other person who occupies a similar space to Carlile, and that’s the equally estimable Sara Bareilles. Carlile is slightly more on the rootsy/Americana side, versus Bareilles’ Broadway-baby inclinations, but both marry ideal voices to smart, personal, impossibly melodic songwriting — full, one-woman package deals you’re hard-pressed to find this side of the 1970s.
Speaking of which, they also have in common that they’re both Elton John freaks. Carlile didn’t do any of the Elton covers that she’s occasionally trotted out on this tour, but she did speak at length about her childhood fixation — she used to even cut out and paste photos of EJ’s session players on her bedroom wall, she said — as a means of getting into her tribute to Elton’s legendary strings guy, Paul Buckmaster, whose final work was contributing two orchestral arrangements to the “By the Way, I Forgive You” album.
Carlile was accurate in saluting her own “string quartet that sounds like an entire orchestra,” and that was particularly true in their adaptation of Buckmaster’s swan song of an arrangement for “Party of One.” “I just want to say here, because I know how many people here have an influence in the community,” she said, “that if it weren’t for Paul Buckmaster and George Martin, there would not be a marriage of rock and roll with strings. So, everybody just keep that in mind during Grammy season. Even though Paul is gone, I know it’d make him really happy to be acknowledged in that way.” That’s some highly justifiable awards lobbying, even if Buckmaster isn’t the only one associated with her album who belongs in the conversation.