Before anything else is said about Brandi Carlile’s sold-out show at Pabst Theater Tuesday night, it should be noted that halfway through the evening the singer-songwriter performed the impossibly gorgeous and heartbreaking “Beginning To Feel The Years” sans microphone—or any form of amplification for that matter. With backing vocals and ukulele provided by twin-brother songwriting partners Tim and Phil Hanseroth, Carlile used only the natural acoustics of the theater to project her beautifully bittersweet tribute to growing old and finding comfort in the one you love. It was stunning. Earlier in her set, Carlile mentioned how headlining the Pabst was the stuff artists’ dreams were made of; her show-stopping performance of “Beginning To Feel The Years” was the stuff audiences’ dreams were made of.
The line on Carlile’s excellent new record, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, is that it’s the singer-songwriter’s most rocking and immediate to date. Mostly recorded in first takes and without rehearsals, the album scuffs the lines between country, folk, gospel, and rock (a common feature of Carlile’s work ever since her 2005 debut), but adds a dash of raucousness to the mix. The same could be said for Carlile’s live show Tuesday night: Coming out to a trippy light show and deafening screams, Carlile and her band tore into an agreeably raw and nasty rendition of Firewatcher’s “The Stranger At My Door.” The singer’s booming voice went rough and horse at various points, nearly matching the searing guitar solo that closed the song. Anyone expecting an NPR “Tiny Desk” performance was likely busy picking themselves off the floor.
Not that the entire night was dedicated to paint-peeling rock. In adherence to Carlile’s refreshing disdain for genre, her career-spanning set featured boot-stompin’ country (“Hard Way Home,” “The Things I Regret”), CSNY- and Fleetwood Mac-indebted folk (“The Eye”), the occasional piano ballad (“That Wasn’t Me,” “Pride And Joy”), and even nods to the likes of Led Zeppelin (“Going To California”) and Radiohead (“Again Today,” which built to a “Fake Plastic Trees”-esque climax). Firewatcher opener “Wherever Is Your Heart” seemed stadium-ready, and set-closer “Raise Hell” did just that.
The rabid and at-times hysterical crowd thrilled to every moment, and it was easy to see why: Carlile displayed an uncanny knack for going big one minute and getting intimate the next, following hand-clapping crowd-pleasers like “Dying Day” with devastating personal missives like “That Year.” The singer prefaced the latter with a frank and brutal reflection on her faith, and how an early fling with the Southern Baptist Church colored her memories of a friend who committed suicide. Later, Carlile dedicated the acoustic “I Belong To You” (“a twisted love song”) to her wife, and show-closer and Pretenders cover “I’ll Stand By You” to their daughter.
If the night was a balancing act, it only made sense, as Carlile’s music straddles the curious line between mainstream adult-contemporary and left-of-the-dial indie. Strangely, that tension was best demonstrated not by Carlile, but by the brothers Hanseroth. The twins are clearly gifted songwriters and performers (Carlile has often stressed that “Brandi Carlile” is actually three people), but on stage Tuesday night they were almost unbearably cheesy, perpetually grinning and mugging to the crowd while sporting matching un-ironic fedoras. Carlile handled herself better, deftly mixing a cool assuredness with a wide-eyed, aw-shucks sense of gratitude. She seemed especially smitten with Milwaukee, noting how far she and her band had come since their early days of playing Shank Hall. That move from small to large—and the ability to effortlessly move between the two—was Carlile’s biggest asset, and the trait that ultimately won over the already adoring crowd.
Opener Torres, meanwhile, was phenomenal, even if the Carlile faithful seemed occasionally puzzled by her dark, moody, St.-Vincent-meets-Nirvana-meets-Adore-era-Smashing-Pumpkins rock. Near the end of her set, Torres addressed the audience: “I used to be on your side, watching Brandi play. She’s my hero and always will be my hero. To be sharing a stage with her is enough to make me cry.” Later, she summed up her feelings more succinctly: “I’m so fucking glad to be here.” She wasn’t alone.
“The Stranger At My Door”
“Hard Way Home”
“That Wasn’t Me”
“The Things I Regret”
“Beginning To Feel The Years”
“I Belong To You”
“Wherever Is Your Heart”
“Going To California” (Led Zeppelin)
“Pride And Joy”
“Murder In The City” (The Avett Brothers)
“I’ll Stand By You” (The Pretenders)