Did ye get healed?
This is a rhetorical question Van Morrison posed many years ago that may pop up in the back of your mind at someone else’s show, on one of those rare nights when there’s enough strife or upset in the world that the crowd can be collectively understood to be experiencing a wound. That was the case with Brandi Carlile playing two sold-out shows at L.A.’s Greek Theatre over the weekend right in the wake of the Supreme Court issuing a decision that the vast majority of her progressive-leaning audience would find deeply grievous, or ominous, with one justice vowing that another right should be on the chopping block — the same-sex marriage that Carlile has sung and talked about on stage virtually every night for years.
The first of Carlile’s two performances at the amphitheater was balmy, with L.A. currently being hit by a classic seaside “monsoonal moisture event.” But her show was also balm-y, for a full house that likely alternately felt healed, helpfully distracted, riled, roused, connected and almost feeling OK about the human condition. Carlile gave voice between songs to the anger and sorrow many were feeling, but boy (or girl), is she the one to see if you need some ointment rubbed in. But that’s not unusual for a Carlile show. Even on a night where you didn’t walk in with Roe on your mind, you’d be likely to leave feeling rehabilitated.
Her L.A. dates marked the fifth and sixth gigs of a long tour that began with an epic hometown blowout at Seattle’s Gorge on June 11, with U.S. amphitheater and arena dates booked into late October. This is the first time Carlile has done a real tour since she became That Woman on the Grammys — the one even your homophobic uncle back home in Topeka who hasn’t bought a record in 25 years thinks sings real good. So in a way, everything seems a little different, this post-pandemic, post-Ehrlich time around the block. And yet everything is kind of the same, too, for longer-term fans. She was already playing the Greek or Greek-sized venues for a long time before becoming a household name (if usually for one night instead of two). And even now that she could do arenas if she wanted (and will, when she plays MSG in four months), she’s still just by nature a Shed Queen, if we can coin a phrase.
In other words, while she may have glitzed herself up in a lot in the last couple of years — celebrity tailor “Richfresh made me a suit for tonight,” she gloated, adding, “I am a happy gay” — it still feels most natural to watch her with a couple of trees in the corner of your eye.
Even if this wasn’t her first Greek rodeo, Carlile made it sound like it was, saying “this is the kind of shit you dream of” and declaring it her favorite L.A. show to date over a 20-year history of visits here. She made a point of recalling her very first local gig, circa 2002 at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe, “before it was big, when it was tiny, before they knocked the wall down” to make it merely intimate instead of, like, a narrow closet. “I’m sitting there at soundcheck and I look at the back of the soundboard and there’s a sign that says ‘Please don’t fucking play ‘Hallelujah.'” The upshot of the story: it dawned on her it’d already become a horrible cliche, but “goddam it, I’m playing it!”
Open-heartedness over coolness has always been the Carlile way, but she’s managed to be pretty cool in the subsequent years anyway, no matter what covers filter into her repertoire. Cohen isn’t popping up on this tour so far, but inevitably his countryperson Joni Mitchell, now a BFF, is, although instead of “A Case of You” you’re likelier to hear her epic, dirge-to-hard-rock jam version of “Woodstock,” which she performed Saturday but not Friday. Both nights, she performed back-to-back mid-set versions of two of the most reliably crowd-pleasing cover songs of all time, Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Radiohead’s “Creep,” the latter gleefully invoking an outsider status she grew up with but can revive just for fun now.
Carlile pleaded with the crowd to do karaoke to her as she introduced what has officially supplanted 2007’s “The Story” as her biggest song, 2018’s “The Joke.” “There are nights when I need to hear this one more than sing it, and this is one of those nights,” she said, alluding to the mood set by the week’s topical Supreme Court events. It would be nice to report the audience took her up on this, but even a worshipful and possibly loosened-by-drink crowd knows “The Joke” is one woman’s octave-spanning vocal showcase, not a group-sing. There, as on other songs like “Right on Time” that also naturally rise to dog-whistle belt-iness, she’s kinda Roy Orbison with a global social conscience.
There would be actual sing-alongs, later (the chorus of “Hold Out Your Hand” made for a great one in Friday’s encore). But certain songs, the audience knows not to try at home.
Although she did not belabor what was fresh in the nation’s news, she went beyond just being allusive about it. In introducing “The Mother,” Carlile said she could not sing a number “about my conscious decision to become a mother” without talking about choice on the bubble.
“Normally I would ask you to let it go for tonight, but I don’t want you to let it go,” Carlile said early in Friday’s show, in anticipation of “The Mother,” which she framed more emphatically than usual as being about her choice to raise a child. “Be heartbroken. Be angry… There’s a lot of us here. This many people can move the needle on something like this.” Later, she said, “I don’t know about y’all but it’s doing my heart a lot of good just to be here you, and just to sing for you, and to laugh. We can cry, too. And I’m gonna do a whole hell of a lot of screaming. But I’m gonna save a bit of screaming, too. Because I believe that this can be undone, and will be undone.”
It’s hard to think of any other current rock star who so successfully puts heart at, well, the heart of her proceedings, without ever submitting to anything like bathos. And by the way, “rock star” is the correct terminology here; a country star, maybe in another lifetime, and it’s a hell of a great, naturally felt side hustle for her. But the fact that this is a rock show, even as much as a singer/songwriter showcase, was felt from the beginning at Friday’s show. The opening minutes of the performance, with Carlile not yet on stage, were devoted to a hard-rock jam featuring band co-stars Tim and Phil Hanseroth, starting the show with a healthy dose of — dare we say this? — traditional heteronormative rock energy. That continued on as Carlile entered for the real opener, a rousing “Broken Horses” from her 2021 album “In These Silent Days,” as good and powerful a rock rager as anyone has produced in the last 10 years. That energy would be ramped up again for the same album’s “Sinners, Saints and Fools.”
But one of Carlile’s secret weapons is that even some of the putative ballads have headbanging moments inserted for dynamics — never more notably than the signature song “The Story” itself, a moment in the show when amateur photographers may try to catch a snapshot of the hair that the singer has recently been glamming up and slicking back going a little astray.
The show’s peak moment at the opposite end of that scale, though, continues to be a longtime highlight that has everyone but Carlile and the Hanseroths leaving the stage (even the excellent four-piece string section that augmented so many numbers). “The Eye,” which is just about the climax of a Carlile concert no matter how early in the show she places it, was introduced with an aside about its California appropriateness. “We’re so influenced by the Laurel Canyon sound, Crosby, Stills and Nash, three-part harmony, ‘California Dreamin’,’ the Mamas and the Papas, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joni Mitchell, and we’re gonna play something that we hope represents our best effort to replicate that.” Any time “The Eye” starts up, you may have that familiar, suspicious instinct for a second: Damn it, they put on such an organic face — what’s with the backing tracks? And then you settle in to the sublimity that three voices can achieve on their own. The showpiece feels like sitting around the campfire with a full choir, as one does.
On the lighter side, she brought out her opening act, Lucius — the duo whose luscious new album, “Second Nature,” she recently co-produced — for “You and Me on the Rock.” It’s a song Carlile has described as consciously Joni-esque, albeit Joni in an it’s-OK-to-have-a-hit, “Help Me” mode. Happy a song as it is, you wouldn’t exactly call it gospel, although Carlile described its biblical origins for the non-post-evangelicals in the crowd. “When I was about 5 or 6, living outside of Seattle… I went to a thing called Vacation Bible School. Which was not a vacation,” she laughed. “But to be fair, I loved it.” There, she learned a song with the New Testament admonition to build houses on a firm foundation. “When the lockdown happened and I was out in the garden with my wife, I realized that I had become a big, happy gay. I was hearing myself say it. It occurred to me that it may not have been what Vacation Bible School had intended, but I had done it: I had built my house on a rock.”
In a week when America has never seemed more like a nation built on shifting sands, Carlile provided just the notes of domestic hope — in every sense of the word domestic — that a crowd of 6,000 needed to get un-rattled for a night.
For a closer, Carlile and the twins sang the recent song “Stay Gentle” in an arrangement that made the implicit, old-school Tin Pan Alley-ness of the tune explicit. And just when you might’ve been thinking about how she’s really embraced the 1930s style embedded in the tune, there she was, finally alone at center stage, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” A Pride anthem, in context, to be sure… but maybe on this weekend more than any of the ones that preceded it in June, a great, hopeful, American lullaby.
Also on the L.A. shows’ agenda: a surprise appearance by Marcus Mumford — not so much of a surprise by the time he repeated his appearance on night 2. Taking a break from the Sons for an upcoming solo album, Mumford was on hand to premiere an affecting post-breakup song he and Carlile wrote and sang together to close his record. (Read more about that in Variety‘s earlier report here.)
Carlile has been rotating opening acts, being a spread-the-love-around type. While Celisse started off Saturday night’s second night at the Greek, Lucius opened Friday’s with a generous 50 minutes of their trademark faux-twin harmonizing, a vocal sound so spectacular that it’s really unreasonable for anyone other than Carlile to follow it. The set included a good amount of numbers from the new, Carlile/Dave Cobb-produced “Second Nature,” which, as the two women said, was born out of wanting to make a dance record as a sort of pandemic counter-programming. The disco vibes were strong in some of the numbers, as were some determined ’80s MTV dance-pop elements — the identical key-tars the pair occasionally brought out were a strong visual clue.
But for all the determined diva-disco-throwback fun in Lucius’ set — and some mid-tempo guitar-rock numbers, too — nothing impressed quite like their starkest ballad, the divorce-themed heartbreaker “Man I’ll Never Find,” which proved that Carlile is not the only one who knows exactly how or when to slay with a great, un-telescoped key change. Another highlight: Carlile, in more woodsy gear before her headlining set, joined the duo during their set for a performance of their “Dusty Trail” that shows she joins in three-part harmony with twins of choice as twins by birth.