Saturday, August 10, 2013

Brandi Carlile - Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay, August 9, 2013

Brandi Carlile - Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay

I saw Brandi Carlile in concert last Friday at Humphrey's in San Diego. It was a good show, my second time seeing her live. She last played in San Diego at the local House of Blues less than a year ago, when she was touring to promote her 2012 album, Bear Creek. This year's show, as part of her "'Hard Way Home' Summer Convoy" tour, again highlighted the Bear Creek material, which is not as much to my taste as her previous albums. It has several tracks I enjoy, but it's also by far her most country work, with an earthier and more playful sound than I was prepared or hoping for. Compared to last year's show at the House of Blues, Friday's concert was probably even more so channeling the spirit behind Bear Creek, as Brandi and the band largely eschewed electric instruments. They did bring along a banjo/Dobro-player this time, whereas last year they had a fiddler.

About a third of the set was Bear Creek songs, all taken from the front half of the album, as was the case last year. "Hard Way Home" is not one of my favorite tracks on the album, and I actually find "Raise Hell" a tad irritating, although the latter at least is a crowd-pleaser when performed live, as she appropriately injects the vocals with a lot more energy and emotion than found on the oddly tepid record. "Keep Your Heart Young" is a silly song, as country as anything else from Bear Creek, but I like its melody and find the lyrics endearing. It's probably my favorite Bear Creek track, maybe alongside "100." Interestingly, through most of last year's tour, the band would play "100" with electric guitars, including a solo as part of an extended intro, giving the song quite a different character that I much preferred over the Bear Creek album version. Not this time, alas, as they stuck with the acoustics.

From Brandi's eponymous debut album, they played "What Can I Say" and "Closer to You." Again, neither are favorites of mine, although I would say that the lyrics "Oh Lord, what can I say / I'm so sad since you went away" (actually written by band mate Tim Hanseroth) are among her most memorable. She also introduced "Closer to You" with the sweet story of how, when she was just starting out playing shows as a teenager, at the end of the night, after she had gone to bed, having safely tucked away her whopping $120 for the gig, the twins, Tim and Phil Hanseroth—the other two core members of the Brandi Carlile Band—would sneak their shares of the money into her guitar case, because they had jobs and she didn't.

From The Story, they played, of course, "The Story," still Brandi's biggest hit to date. This performance was a touch disappointing, as it didn't have the level of production as on the album or as in previous live shows. Still, a great song is a great song, and it's always amazing when an artist can get the crowd on its feet from just the instantly familiar opening guitar strums of a beloved hit.

Speaking of which, this was, refreshingly for me, a concert where the average attendee was noticeably older than me. Being older, they also sat for most of the show, however, which was maybe a bit lame, compared to the Tegan and Sara show at the same venue, where everybody was on their feet throughout. I didn't especially mind, as I myself preferred to sit, but it was a tad embarrassing, I thought, that, upon Brandi's insistence that the San Diego crowd get up and "behave badly" ("Whatever your week has been, put it behind you!"), the audience cheered loudly enough but then afterward quickly resumed forming the image of a beaten people.

Also from The Story, they performed "Have You Ever" and "Again Today," the former a somewhat rare inclusion in her live shows, but one which, with its yodeling, perhaps has found renewed life fitting perfectly alongside the Bear Creek material. "Again Today" is a song I find kind of boring for the first three minutes, but I listen to it in anticipation of what happens three minutes in, and this is another one that always sounds better and more powerful live.

From Give Up the Ghost, Brandi performed "Looking Out" and "Dreams," two songs quite tonally different from one another, but each of which I have, at different times, considered my favorite of hers. That was something I loved about that third album—that it showed off Brandi's musical versatility, not only in her ability to draw from and synthesize different genres (folk, rock, country, pop) for crossover appeal, but also in that she had songs of different moods. For "Looking Out," a song to encourage us when we find ourselves on our knees and feeling alone, Brandi took the stage alone and sang it as a gentle serenade. The band's performance of "Dreams," Brandi's most invigorating song to empower all the unapologetic romantics, was, at this show, one of the least assuming, least pretentious numbers. They played it straight, and, accompanied as it was by the serendipitous sight of a shooting star across the night sky, it was the highlight of the night.

Typically, Brandi will also perform a few covers at her live shows, debuting a new one with each tour. Last year, she did an amazing interpretation of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," which I actually felt was superior to Sinead O'Connor's. This time, the band covered Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." It was a great, albeit predictable, rendition tapping into that husky side to Brandi's vocals. If I could sing, I would want to be able to sing like Brandi Carlile. Or, erm, whoever the male equivalent is, I guess. As a vocalist, she has range but is also honest. She can be tough, she can be sweet, she can croon, and she can howl. But, however she sings, she always does it in a way that doesn't compromise but rather upholds the integrity of the song itself. Even when the song is not her own, she'll sing the words with conviction of personal experience.

Another tradition at Brandi's live shows is that the band will do one song completely unplugged, and she'll encourage the crowd to cozy up as close to the stage as possible. Unfortunately, because of the outdoor venue with its reserved seating, this probably wouldn't have been possible at Humphrey's.

To close the night, she performed the cheesily rousing "Pride and Joy" from Give Up the Ghost (the live arrangement, with the swelling string section at the end, plus a new drum segment just before, and, by this point, they had also brought out the electric guitars), Bear Creek's "That Wasn't Me" on piano (a song I still haven't quite warmed to, probably because I can't sing along to it), and a cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." I must confess, I'm not a fan of that last one, nor of Brandi's version, but it is one of her signature live songs.

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