Brandi Carlile has a bit of that alt-country thing going, and some folky roots in there, but basically, she just rocks your socks off. Carlile has opened for others at Britt several times in recent years, but now she has the following to pack the place as the headliner.
She built her crowd the hard way, through constant, road-dog touring built around a growing catalog of strong songs. Carlile fans tend to be a bit rabid about her. A great whoop greeted her arrival on stage Wednesday night, dressed in jeans and a sleeveless shirt that showed off the tattoo on her bicep.
She opened with "Hard Way Home," a country number that mixes a bouncy tune with slightly ominous lyrics ("Oooh, the things I have known / Looks like I'm taking the hard way home / Oooh, the seeds I've sown / Taking the hard way home").
Her second song, "Raise Hell," a minor-key romper about a love affair that ended badly, showed off the rough edges of her powerful voice. Carlile is fronting a very good band led by twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who provide dead-on harmonies along with solid playing. But the heart of the show is the singer's voice. Carlile has a big, instantly recognizable vocal instrument which she sometimes allows to break as she belts out an emotional line.
Now 32, she started singing in Seattle while still in her teens and got a record deal with Columbia in 2004. She was on Rolling Stone's list of "10 Artists to Watch in 2005," and opened for Ray LaMontagne, Indigo Girls, Chris Isaak, Tori Amos, and Shawn Colvin while building her following. She's had records produced by T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin.
Carlile writes about things like loneliness, dreams, friendship, identity, mistakes, love, loss. Like most singers, she doesn't like for her music to be pigeonholed. She listened while growing up to Patsy Cline, k.d. lang, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Roy Orbison — a list so all over the place it doesn't provide much of a clue.
In her live show, you really get the emotional investment she makes in her songs. "Have You Ever" is a song about nature and wonderment ("Have you ever wandered lonely through the wood? / and everything it feels just as it should / you're part of the life there, part of something good"). She altered the lyrics, changing "starry sky" to "an Oregon sky" and even "a cloudy sky" as raindrops began falling.
Many of her best numbers are about relationships. "What Can I Say" evokes the pain of missing your lover after she's left. "Dreams" is about longing ("I can't have you but I have dreams").
"Closer to You," one of the first songs Carlile wrote with the Hanseroth twins, with whom she used to play bar and coffee house gigs in Seattle, got a sweet, acoustic treatment. As did "100," a song about keeping your heart young.
A friend seeing Carlile for the first time remarked that even her covers kick butt. Yup. Like her take on Radiohead's "Creep," which she played solo. It started as a soft, acoustic number, whipped itself into a fury, Carlile's voice rasping with emotion, then subsided again. There was Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" done as a monster rave-up with the band tearing up the hillside as Carlile danced wildly.
I can't think of another singer who can sound like singers as different as Lucinda Williams and Sarah McLachlan. And Gibb Droll's banjo, Konrad Meisner's drums and Josh Neumann's cello, along with the twins on guitar and bass, lay down tight backing built around the singer's ballads and step out and rock hard when rocking is called for.
Is there anything Carlile can't do? Well, she's a pretty rudimentary pianist. There's a story that she confessed to Elton John, with whom she was recording her song "Caroline," that she was insecure about playing the piano. He told her to not even think about it.
Case in point: "The Story," a moving love song about forgiveness from her second album, which she sang near the end of the show, accompanying herself on piano (thank you, Sir Elton). When you have a voice like this — which nobody else does — some simple chords will suffice.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.