|Brandi Carlile covers Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash at House of Blues, Anaheim, 3/12|
Playing a sold-out show presented by public radio station KCRW at the Anaheim House of Blues is a far cry from her days as resident musician at Los Angeles club Hotel Cafe. Back then, alt-country songstress Brandi Carlile would be lucky to play for a room of 20 people. How times have changed. With five records under her belt, one of them, the EP XOBC
, just released in February,Carlile has developed quite a rabid following. Though I had never seen her perform before, the collective anticipatory chants of "Brandi, Brandi, Brandi," before she took the stage piqued my curiosity.
The Show: Okay. First, the bad news. Carlile and her backing band, which is comprised of cello, bass, guitar, piano and drums, don't deliver particularly groundbreaking music. Yes, they're tight. And with twin brothers Tim (guitar) and Phil Hanseroth (bass) flanking either side of the stage wearing matching fedoras, the whole group represents a visual symmetry that's pleasing to the eye. But Carlile's stage presence is largely matter-of-fact. From her simple look (jeans, a Boy Scout-looking shirt and ankle-high cowgirl boots) to her between-song banter about the rides at Disneyland, everything about the show proved fairly straight forward and lacking in the sonic surprises one might find in other country-leaning indie bands such as Wilco or Rilo Kiley. Save for one important thing--Carlile's voice is incredible.
Though dwarfed by the men standing around her on stage, Carlile fearlessly led the charge, her pipes resonating powerfully with a big beautiful, wavering wash that bordered on a yodel. This phenomenal effect seemed as if it were facilitated by a paper reed installed directly inside her voice box. At other times, Carlile emitted a lamenting howl that recalled a singing specter. During her performance, she cited Roy Orbison as an influence and there were moments when she seemed to be channeling the ghost of the legendary country crooner.
Highlights of the set included the evening's opener "Oh Dear," off 2009's Give up the Ghost. This one involved the whole band gathered around a mic delivering pitch-perfect harmonies while accompanied only by a ukulele and Carlile's voice. There was also a point during the set when Carlile and company managed to break the audience into three sections and lead each one in separate harmonies, bringing a church vibe to the House of Blues. Perhaps this was the result of her Baptist upbringing--a bit of personal trivia she referenced before singing "That Year," also off Give up the Ghost. Before singing the song, Carlile mentioned it was about the suicide of a childhood friend and said age sixteen "was a tough time to be a Baptist."
Then, sitting alone on stage with a small guitar, she cooed softly, her voice cutting through the room's silence like a shimmering knife. There were also covers of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." It was during "Folsom" when guitarist Hanseroth got to shine with a raucous solo. It was one of the few moments when the audience was reminded of the presence of someone besides Carlile occupying the stage.
The Crowd: There were more women at this event than one would find at other shows. And unlike say a punk show where everybody jockeys for position, I was asked several times if I could move out of the way (I'm kinda tall). The third time I was asked to move, I politely told the woman, who said she had been standing in front of the stage for over an hour, to write her congressman. She called me an asshole.
Overheard: "I love you Brandi," yelled one male fan during a lull in the performance. To which she replied, "I love you too. Why not?"