Brandi Carlile at the Minnesota State Fair, 8/29/10
Brandi Carlile with Amos Lee and The Watson Twins Minnesota State Fair Grandstand, 8/29/10
Brandi Carlile headlines the Grandstand: A self-declared milestone. She could not contain her joy at packing that place. She jumped and smiled constantly and sashayed gleefully around the stage.
That's definitely not how the other nights' headliners felt. But even if Carlile were super famous (like Tim McGraw) or super old (like Rush), she'd still have been bouncing around up there, spirited. It's who she is: They tried to give her drugs to calm her down when she was a kid. She dropped out of school and played music instead. Lucky us.
First openers the Watson Twins were probably only at the State Fair because they've been touring with Brandi Carlile. Still most famous for backing Jenny Lewis on Rabbit Fur Coat, the Kentucky sisters have beautiful voices. Too bad they're so boring.
Amos Lee is not boring. He is what happens when you're a little bit country and a little bit R&B. His brand of folk storytelling is incredibly specific, going so far as to cite romantic rivals by name.
The final song of his set came with an introductory verse tailor-made to the occasion. He introduced it as a sensual song, to get everyone talkin' beautiful to each other. Opening line: "I see a lot of lovers in the house tonight/eatin' cotton candy... big fat bacon... cheese curds... and...cheese on a stick."
This killed. And when his back-up singer, Angel, came out from the shadows, freshly changed into a hat-to-wingtip white suit, singing about how it's so hot at this fair and we need to take a cold shower, baby, that killed even more. The whole display earned a standing ovation from the rapidly-filling Grandstand. That's right -- a standing ovation for an opener. At the time, it seemed like a moment that could not be topped. It wasn't.
Brandi Carlile's story makes it easy to give others credit for her success. A brief list of breaks: Dave Matthews, impressed by her performance at Sasquatch in 2003, opens industry doors. The most ironic kingmaker in indie music, Grey's Anatomy, borrows heavily from her catalogue. Rick Rubin produces 2009's Give Up The Ghost. Indigo Girls and Elton John collaborate with her.
The thing is, none of that would have happened if she sucked. Brandi Carlile is very good, a memorable hook-crafter and beautifully simple storyteller. And oh that voice.
The voice's best showcase came, of all places, during her solo, stool-bound rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." Musician types will know that the first two notes of that song are spread over an octave, which is a large enough leap that most people will struggle to get there consistently. Brandi Carliile, however, lives for those sorts of vocal gymnastics. Her songs are constantly going from Willie Nelson low to Thom Yorke high. She'll go back and forth a half a dozen times in a chorus. Fellow alt-country singer and unquestioned vocal titan Neko Case doesn't even do that.
Judy Garland sings "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" very competently. But it's a cheeseball ballad in her hands. It takes a Brandi Carlile to give the song the ache and soar it needs.
After all that: this really should not be called Brandi Carlile. This is a band fronted by Brandi Carlile and heavily featuring identical twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth on bass and guitar, respectively. The three of them have written every song in the Brandi Carlile catalog.
The twins were dressed in identical black shirt, black hat, tight jean ensembles for the State Fair, and their spotlight moment started the encore. The two of them sang "Sounds of Silence." No word on which one has to be Garfunkel.
That started an encore featuring four covers. Two Johnny Cash songs (the ones you'd expect) and "Let It Be," which was not on the original set list for the evening. Carlile, swept up in what was at least the fourth standing ovation of her performance, tacked it on, saying, "that was supposed to be our last song, but we're going to play one more."
She said they were going to lead us right into the fireworks, and that's exactly how it happened, the roar from the crowd unabated when the first boom came from behind the Grandstand. At the beginning of the night, it was hard to imagine how playing a state fair could be everything Brandi Carlile seemed to think it was. It made a little more sense by the end. She has enthusiasm enough to share.
Critic's Bias: Generally I'm ambivalent about the whole cowboy boots on "indie" singers thing, and specifically: Brandi Carlile > Amos Lee > the Watson Twins, even before this show. The Crowd: Three to one women to men and mostly older. Overheard in the Crowd: Three teenage girls singing "Bad Romance" between Amos Lee's and Brandi Carlile's sets. They were at the "Rah rah, oh ma ma" part when I heard them. What a weird song for Top 40. Random Notebook Dump: Probably shouldn't have eaten that entire thing of cheese curds by myself. Just saying. For more photos: See our full slideshow by Tony Nelson.
Brandi Carlile Set List: Cello Solo Oh Dear Looking Out What Can I say Closer To You My Song Acoustic Break Dying Day Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain with Amos Lee (Cover of Willie Nelson) Somewhere Over The Rainbow End Acoustic Break Dreams Have You Ever Turpentine The Story Encore Sounds of Silence performed by the Hanseroth Twins (Cover of Simon & Garfunkel) Jackson (Cover of Johnny Cash) Folsom Prison Blues (Cover of Johnny Cash) Pride and Joy Instrumental Let It Be (Cover of The Beatles)
Amos Lee Set List: Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight Supply And Demand Truth Careless Bottom Of The Barrel El Camino Listen Won't Let Me Go (Minnesota State Fair Edition)
Watson Twins Set List: Southern Manners How Am I To Be ??? Just Like Heaven (Cover of The Cure) Calling Out ??? Ain't No Sunshine (Cover of Bill Withers) U-N-Me
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