The Hollywood Bowl is in those last moments of the season where the weather is a roulette wheel of possibilities. For Sara Bareilles’ show Saturday, there was a break in the devil winds that made the night feel a little less Santa Anas, and a little more Santa. “If you’re like me and you’re slowly going into hypothermia,” she said, “this is a great time to get up out of your seats — and your behind neighbor is not allowed to get mad at you, because we have to move around if we’re going to stay alive, right?” When the acoustic duo the Milk Carton Kids joined her for one number, she wondered aloud if she could lay hands on the lads, for shared body warmth. “Is that weird?”
The temperature can be a little hard to keep track of at a Bareilles show, actually, when she’s in the business of warming hearts and, in the places that voice goes, chilling spines. It’s a tricky business but somebody’s got to do it as well as Bareilles did on her latest album, “Amidst the Chaos,” her first non-“Waitress”-related release since 2013. A lot of what she baked up for her resumption of post-Broadway activity is material that was written at least partly as an aggressively tender response to the meanness she sees in these Trump-ian times. For anyone who believes that music can provide healing, amidst even chaos this formidable, Bareilles may feel like nothing less than a mezzo-sopranic administering angel… with healthy, unangelic amounts of comic snark and swearing between songs.
“I have not toured in almost six years,” she announced, before deferring to a response from the Bowl’s pool seating area. “That was, like, a legit grumble. Kind of like, ‘Yeah, we f—in’ know. My kid’s grown, my kid’s in kindergarten now.'” She paused in this mostly imaginary conversation. “I’m happy for your child.” A lot has happened in her absence, like a political upheaval that just about counts as a big chill, itself. Bareilles is addressing it covertly in some new songs, more overtly in others, like “Armor.” (“I was profoundly changed” by the 2017 women’s march, she said in prefacing the tune, and by “what it means to dissemble and reanalyze some things that have always been social constructs but don’t have to be. To be alive at a time when we get to make these choices consciously is super f—ing important to me, and I am so proud to be a feminist.”)
She seemed determined to bring the heat from the moment she appeared on stage, looking like the embodiment of a fire emoticon, or at least a very bright autumn leaf, in her flaming dress. Following an introductory tease of “Orpheus (Prologue),” with its hint of the heat of the Greek underworld, Bareilles quickly proceeded right into “Fire,” which has the singer leaving a sparkless relationship she’s settled for, holding out for something that merits at least as much passion as she’s putting into her ridiculously melodic but also nearly percussive piano playing.
Having actually fallen in love in recent years, Bareilles has some more upfront love songs, now, in an arsenal that was formerly bigger on classic breakup material. By the time she got to her most lilting pop song, “I Choose You,” a few numbers in, a public marriage proposal was happening up in the nosebleed section, sending an initially baffling cheer down from on high. “What’s happening? Did somebody get engaged?” she asked afterward. “To be honest, I heard some shit go down in the middle of the song, but I was afraid I was gonna forget the words so I didn’t stop.” She asked the newly betrothed pair to wave their smartphone lights in the air while everyone else kept theirs down. “Congratulations,” she said. “You can name your relationship ‘Sara.’”
“I wanna see you be brave” is her anthemic catchphrase, and it also applies to the composition of her setlist, maybe, with half the 22-song show taken from the new album, including the show’s first five songs and final encore number. That might come off as a challenge to the audience if Bareilles’ material wasn’t so hooky and emotionally available that it sinks in effectively on first listen, which it undoubtedly was for some of the 17,000 in the house. But by moving her former signature tune “Love Song” up from deep into the show in the sixth position, it’s not as if she’s forestalling more familiar pleasures. As a former waitress — something she thought bore mentioning as she was later introducing a suite of songs from, yes, “Waitress” — Bareilles has a pretty good idea of what to serve up, and in what order. Having “Amidst the Chaos” be the main course, with its substance and sustenance, is highly justifiable. With T Bone Burnett egging her on as producer, she’s bested herself in a collection that has her playing wounded lovebird and wisened pop shaman in equal measure, with a topical undercurrent of just what a mess we’re all in.
“I started writing this record after the election,” she declared. “I know. It’s been fun! Having a great time in life; it’s going good. And looking back, it was a crazy time, it was volatile — and I’m just glad that everything’s better now.” Sarcasm will get her everywhere with this presumably progressive a fan base. At least it’s hard to imagine how many Ever Trumpers listen to “Armor,” hear lines like “Only the little boys tell you they’re a big man… Strength means blessed with an enemy,” and think it’s actually the prevailing Pennsylvania Avenue values she’s extolling. Still, she’s not explicitly political very often, so maybe it’s possible to love her and love the culture of political bullying, too. But most fans who listen to her sing her full-length, set-ending version of “Orpheus” will take in her heart-rending update on Orpheus and Eurydice and know that it’s our own fresh hell, not the ancient Grecians’ mythical one, that inspires the song’s dark, heart-rending romanticism.
“Orpheus” had Bareilles joined by T Bone Burnett, who took a ceremonial role sitting and strumming along on acoustic guitar, as he does in his one instrumental appearance on the album. The other special guest for the night was the Milk Carton Kids (pictured, above), whose Joey Ryan sang and played on “Someone Who Loves Me” on the album. The acoustic ballad isn’t normally part of her set, but with both Kids on hand to join her, it became an added highlight in L.A., with the trio gathered around a single mic, the same way Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale do it on their own. But creating a sense of community figures into Bareilles’ set anyway, when it comes to sharing and spotlighting vocal duties, especially on the “Waitress” material. For “Soft Place to Land,” band members Butterfly Boucher (a former Interscope artist) and Misty Boyce came up front to form a sisterly trio. Then Boucher remained to duet on the musical’s “Bad Idea,” assuming a not-so-sisterly role in taking the male part on the frantic erotic scorcher. When Solomon Dorsey came out to face Bareilles head-on for the musical’s “You Matter to Me,” it seemed as he if might be a former lead from the Broadway cast stepping out for a cameo, before everyone realized that was her band’s bass (and occasionally viola) player who’d come out from the shadows and just happened to have Broadway-level vocal presence. There was also the nightly presence of tour opening act (and Bareilles’ neighbor/BFF) Emily King, dueting on the song they co-wrote for the latest record, “If I Can’t Have You,” which sits happily in the same neo-soul universe as much of King’s introductory set.
Burnett’s production of the recent album’s songs was embellished by musical director Rob Moose, with a bit more electric rock guitar flavor added to complement Bareilles’ bottom-end piano pounding on “Armor,” for instance — and, more prevailingly, a two- to four-part string section on a majority of the material. Moose himself kicked off a thoroughly reinterpreted version of “Gravity” as a classical-style solo violinist before that older number turned into a mostly string quartet-accompanied ballad. Standing apart from her piano, Bareilles initially down the song’s original pop brassiness to blend in with the more baroque sound of the quartet, then went big, arms outstretched, in the kind of dynamic crescendo that nearly made “Gravity” rival “She Used to Be Mine” for showstopper of the night.
But for as long as she keeps it in the set, “Mine” will put a heartbeat-skipping stop in Bareilles’ shows the way it does as an 11 o’clock number on Broadway nearly every night. (For the time being, that is; Bareilles did mention that “Waitress” is about to end its four-and-a-half-year New York run, though it continues on with productions on the West End, on a national tour, and in Japan, Australia and the Netherlands.) It’s the home run by which she might always be remembered, and it’s ironic that her most soaring, out-of-the-park number is a ballad of doubt and disappointment. But of course you can’t listen to Bareilles wail a song like that and not know that self-reclamation is at hand. As a set-up, “She Used to Be Mine” is so powerful and brilliant that it doesn’t even require a happy denouement — the power of her delivery makes it a given.
Naturally, though, Bareilles’ show ended on a more peaceful note. Rather than ending with a rabble-rouser, the encore capper on this tour is “St. Honesty,” a soothing, humble, gospel-R&B ballad that kind of exalts bracing and loving truth almost as a form of true religion. Pieces of sheet music floated down from the rafters during this finale, echoing the symbolism of the stage design, which has some of that same music attached to netting reaching up from a fixed point toward the Bowl proscenium’s heaven. It was kind of a Michelangelo moment of spiritual transference, there at the end.
And fitting: Hers is the affirming, celestial voice you hope you’ll hear right after you die; to get to hear it now, with no deadlier passage required than the gridlock of the Cahuenga pass, is a pretty generous mortal entitlement.