Brandi Carlile with the Secret Sisters
November 27, 2011
Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul
"If you're in a good mood, don't get used to it," joked Secret Sisters big sis Laura Rogers at the beginning of their set. "We sing sad, depressing country music."
That give-and-take between somber, soulful singing and engaging, humorous stage banter turned out to be a staple of the evening, as the Sisters performed a set of close-harmony country standards before making way for the magnetic force that is Brandi Carlile.
Alone on stage flanked by six guitars and a beautiful black concert grand, Carlile wove her storytelling and singing into an endearing performance that captivated the sold-out crowd. It was her first of two nights at the Fitzgerald, and she made sure early in her set to name-check all the other venues she's played in "Minny-St. Paul," as she called it, and say that she was completely "appalled" that tickets for her two-night stand sold so quickly.
No amount of humility could compensate for her voice, however, which resonated throughout every corner of the theater. That voice -- at once gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, and terrifying, almost too loud to comprehend and too fierce to be funneled through a PA -- lay to waste the fears she had expressed about setting out on her first solo tour. The control she exhibited over her primary instrument was endlessly impressive, and as she worked through a set of songs new and old, it became clear that Carlile could pretty much play whatever the hell she wanted and the audience would eat it up.
To pull the room in even closer, Carlile stepped out from behind her microphone and unplugged her guitar for "What Can I Say," singing the verses directly to a few select people in the front row and nodding along as the entire seated chorus joined in on the main melody. She fired up the "1,000-person choir" once again for a hearty three-part sing along on "Turpentine," laughing with glee as the strains of her own composition came bouncing back to her from every angle.
Those unifying moments were enjoyable, but the real highlights of the set were when Carlile's voice was the only audible sound in the room. The new "Keep Your Heart Young" featured some of the most vivid lyrical storytelling of the set (it was written by her guitarist Tim Hanseroth, who normally tours with Carilie along with his twin brother Phil), while a cover of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" gave Carlile the space to flaunt some vocal acrobatics. It all led up to a devastating rendition of "The Story" that showcased every strength in her multi-faceted voice, raising hairs with her growling, throaty pleas one minute while wailing at the top of her lungs the next.
There was no doubt that there would be an encore, but Carlile didn't seem to want the show to end; she returned to play five more songs, including a gorgeous cover of Damien Rice's "Cannonball" alone on the piano and an introspective new song about addiction with the refrain "That Wasn't Me," and ended the evening by turning out all the lights and speakers for an a capella rendition of "Amazing Grace" with the Secret Sisters. Even with fans' cell phone camera flashes going off every few seconds, it was a delicate moment and a final goodnight at the end of a long night of beauty, sadness, and light.
Personal bias: It was my first time seeing Carlile live and I was only familiar with her radio singles. For some reason, I was expecting the night to be VH1-cheesy (and, as a more experienced Carlile fan informed me, some of her previous full-band shows have veered that way), but I was totally blown away by her charisma and raw talent.
The crowd: The line for the women's restroom snaked all the way up to the balcony.
Overheard in the crowd: "I love you!" plus requests galore, including "Freebird."
Random notebook dump: Protip: Tonight's show is billed as "sold out," but I was told there will be a limited number of tickets available at the box office before the show.
Throw It All Away
Before it Breaks
It's Over (Roy Orbison)
What Can I Say
Keep Your Heart Young*
In the Sweet By and By (traditional)
Crazy (Patsy Cline)
Cannonball (Damien Rice)
Pride and Joy
That Wasn't Me*
Lydia Rogers of opening act the Secret Sisters
Laura Rogers of the Secret Sisters