Brandi Carlile Adores The Ryman And The Feeling Is Mutual
Almost exactly a year ago, singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile dropped the jaws of the nation and the big time music industry with her televised performance of “The Joke” on the Grammy Awards. She won her first three Grammys that night, with all the contrived yet important legitimacy that confers. That was also the point at which thousands and thousands of fans who’d been bonding with and singing along with Carlile during her 20-year rise from Seattle clubs were perhaps thinking, “Where’ve y’all been?”
The crowd last Sunday for night four of Carlile’s historic, sold-out six-night run at the Ryman Auditorium felt like they’d mostly been in that fan club for quite some time. The singer, whose bright eyes and big smile smacked the back wall of the hallowed hall with the force of Earl Scruggs’ banjo, bounced and beamed as she took the stage to the the oceanic swells of a string trio, a french horn and thunderous applause. The sonic surge mellowed for the opening of “Every Time I Hear That Song,” the opening track that gave her Americana Album Grammy winner By The Way, I Forgive You, its title. The skill in modulating energy, from a coo to a roar, foretold a show of folk music played full force with no sacrifice in intimacy or intelligibility.
With her longtime collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth flanking her and five more musicians behind her, there was quite a bit of firepower on stage, and the ensemble got its first chance to really drive on “Raise Hell” from the 2012 album Bear Creek. It was a big showpiece that let Brandi evolve from Elvis energy to metal energy before the song ended with the striking of a massive bell behind the drummer. That gave way to Carlile’s first talk with the audience, which she does as naturally and winningly as she sings. Throughout the evening, she offered funny, moving stories about a variety of subjects: her wife and two daughters, her mom seeing her debut at the Ryman 15 years ago, and buying (nearly) matching shirts for the Hanseroth twins from the inimitable Manuel of Nashville.
Carlile has honed a similar mastery of show architecture, with different set lists over the six nights lending a sense of both freedom and thoughtful flow. Something was always in transition. During her career-breaking masterwork “The Story,” Carlile switched from acoustic to electric guitar mid-song as it grew in intensity to an orchestral climax. Then she pivoted to a vocal trio with the twins to deliver the harmonic purity of “The Eye.” Then it was a solo take on her recent song “The Mother” about the vicissitudes of raising her spunky daughter Evangeline.
That Grammy performance of 2019 was so astonishing to the music industry because by and large, folk singers (she’s much more but that’s how she’s often seen) aren’t supposed to be able to sing money notes and soar with the brassy soul and R&B stars. Yet Carlile has any tool a woman would want in her vocal kit, and no song of this Sunday night showcased that better than her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Case Of You.” Following a delightful story about warily approaching and ultimately befriending the reclusive legend, Carlile delivered a vocal that drew maximal emotion from every syllable of those stunning, 50-year-old lyrics. Her performance a bit later of “The Joke” didn’t quite achieve the same plasma hot perfection of the television take, but on the Joni cover, Carlile’s nuance with tone and vocal breaks and understanding of the text made an indelible memory.
There followed a surprise Led Zeppelin cover (“Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”) that shook the rafters, then a trio on “Cannonball” with three voices, one acoustic guitar and no microphones to plumb the acoustics of the hall. (Talk about contrast.) Lori McKenna, who opened the show with her well-known command of pop country/Americana overlap and her own pure voice, joined Carlile for the night’s one song from 2019’s mega-project The Highwomen. McKenna had a hand in writing “Crowded Table,” which crystallized the warm and inclusive feeling of the whole show. A similar connectedness was integral to the anthemic encore “Hold Out Your Hand.” And the program ended on a more melancholy tone, with Carlile at the piano alone for “Party Of One.” Sounds lonesome, but nobody who ambled out into the cold night was likely to feel that way.
Carlile closes out her Ryman series tonight.