American Spiritual: Brandi Carlile at the Venue Formerly Known as The Murat
The stage darkens, a hush falls over the audience, and a blue spot light shines on a Victrola, from which a faint but familiar voice from a distant time can be heard. This is how newlywed Brandi Carlile eases her eager fans into the sounds of her new album, Bear Creek.
Brandi’s music not only transforms her listeners, it transports them—to higher planes of thinking and feeling. But Bear Creek takes us on a very different journey—to our roots. Audiences come fully prepared to have their hearts wrenched and their spirits elevated, but Bear Creek offers listeners a visceral reaction: foot stomping, to be precise.
Artists who have done the bidding of record companies and pleased them with their efforts are sometimes rewarded with the opportunity to “go back to their roots.” Such an effort usually results in a neatly polished collection of cover songs that is over engineered and quickly dismissed.
But when Brandi Carlile goes back to her roots, something new, inspired, and completely honest happens. Bear Creek was specifically recorded to be played on a record player to capture the rich golden tones that can only be appreciated on vinyl. Someday her song “Keep Your Heart Young” could wind up in a music book with just the words “American Spiritual” beneath the title. The songs are not religious, but they stir the soul and give the spirit wings. Songs such as these could easily transcend the artist.
That’s a big thing for one of the best songwriters of our generation—to stand in the shadow of her own work—and she seems just fine at the prospect.
The songwriting on Bear Creek was largely a collaborative effort with “The Twins” (Tim and Phil Hanseroth), who have been playing with Brandi for the past decade. They wrote the lyrics and music to “Keep Your Heart Young,” but when Brandi sings it, you could swear you were listening to a Johnny Cash song:
“I packed my snowballs nice and tight, and in the middle, I put rocks.”
Brandi’s rich voice isn’t so much deep as it is profound, and on certain songs when she channels The Man in Black, you can almost see her as a little girl, playing his records over and over. I dread the day when Quaker Oats or a pharmaceutical company try to sink their talons into these songs.
It seems that Brandi would be more at home performing at Red Rocks or in the woods outside of Mt. Rainier, but the long road to fame has left her anything but jaded. With each song, she becomes more animated, more connected to the audience. She quips that The Murat is the largest venue she’s ever played and recollects her stint with (we hope not-soon-to-be defunct) Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Conner Prairie two years ago when a thunderstorm halted her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
After a quick conference with her band, she informs us that she’s going to attempt something she’s never attempted before: playing completely unplugged in a venue of this size. “You guys just have no idea how lucky you are to have this place. The acoustics are amazing here.”
They unplug, turn off the microphones, gather into a tight semi-circle, and sing “What Can I Say?” A few measures in, a special type of communion takes place as the audience sings along as if it’s a church hymn. It’s always exciting to think that you could be part of a famous live version of a song.
On her blog she wrote that although she had been performing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for the encore, she had something special planned for Indianapolis, something of “royal origins.” When the first three chords of Nothing Compares 2 U were played, the crowd swooned, and suddenly a pop ballad was transformed into a hymn, an “American Spiritual.” Brandi has a knack for that. When the audience spontaneously hummed the cello solo, she broke out laughing, and again we were made to wonder if this audience was the stuff that live recording albums were made of.
When she swapped her acoustic guitar for her electric guitar, we knew we were about to get what we came for—to see the raw side of her music. While she’s often called “poet,” “philosopher,” and in my case “therapist,” people often forget her most prominent virtue: “rocker.” We were about to hear “The Story,” and her energetic and driven electric guitar solo did not disappoint. As the song ended, we had a beautiful vision of Brandi in silhouette, blue beams rising up behind her, her electric guitar thrust high over her head. Certainly, this was one for the cover of Rolling Stone.
Before she bid us good night, she asked to share with us a special song from her new album, a song that was “so different than anything we’d ever done,” that she was initially afraid to play it for the twins. The song, she said, is about addiction, recovery, forgiveness, and redemption. She took her seat at the piano and gave us “That Wasn’t Me.” (And yes, that is Kris Kristofferson in the official music video.) This was the perfect way to end a perfect night. As we filed out of the auditorium, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a familiar blue light pouring out the doors. Half the audience rushed back in and was richly rewarded.
Alone on stage, just her guitar and her mesmerizing voice, she finally gave Indy the “Hallelujah” it had waited two years to hear.
I’ve always said that the song is overdone, with the following caveat: except when Brandi Carlile plays it.