By Christian Schaeffer
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In three days Brandi Carlile and her band will headline perhaps the most famous rock venue in the United States: Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. But tonight they are finishing up a stint opening for Dave Matthews Band, and to the thousands congregating at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Maryland Heights, they are all but anonymous. "I think she was appropriate," says Tiffany Grover, which falls somewhere in the proximity of "I think she played music" in the scope of compliments.
"Not as good as Dave," adds her friend, Sarah Creighton. That's a feeling shared by plenty of others — one couple who drove more than two hours from Jefferson City picked Carlile's duet with Matthews on the John Prine song "Angel From Montgomery" as not just the highlight of her half-hour opening set, but its only noteworthy moment at all. And Carlile and crew weren't exactly making the crowd work for it — they closed with a "Bohemian Rhapsody" cover.
To take on such a ubiquitous, bombastic song is an audacious choice, but it's also a characteristic one: Brandi Carlile has spent much of her career figuring out ways to go bigger. After back-to-back records produced by T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, respectively, she and her performing and songwriting partners Phil and Tim Hanseroth took the biggest home-run swing known to rock music by performing with a symphony. The results were documented in 2011's Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony.
And Carlile is equal to these ambitions. As a vocalist, she is propulsive and devastating — Sheryl Crow described it as "the most amazing voice I may have ever heard. Soulful. Country. Perfect in every way...and propelled by taste." She has matching tattoos on her shoulders in homage to The NeverEnding Story, but it's not just an affinity reserved for her DVD shelf and body art; Carlile is a fantasy protagonist come to life onstage — capable and vulnerable and optimistic. "I certainly think that fantasy and fantasizing are a really important part of nurturing the imagination, especially in a day and age where we are so advanced in technology," she says.
The cumulative effect can be something like actual magic, and when it's not that, it is at least grandiose. Her biggest hit to date is "The Story," which is a beautiful song that sounds a bit like what might happen if Van Halen started writing folk ballads.
She may not be a household name in the Dave Matthews Band demographic, but Carlile has surpassed pretty much every measure of material success for a modern musician: headlining tours with audiences in the thousands, chart appearances and widespread commercial appropriation of her music.
What happens when you accomplish the thing you set out to do?
Midway through the recording of her fifth album, Bear Creek, which came out on June 1 on this year, Carlile temporarily lost sight of the clarity of purpose that lead her this far. Recounting the experience, she told The Virginian-Pilot, "I realized I had been so music- and career- and tour-focused that I didn't really know who I was at home anymore with Mom and Dad and my family and all of the kids."
The results of this evolution aren't as blatant on the album as you might think — most of it had been recorded by that breaking point anyway. But she was clearly looking to change direction at the outset of this project. Rather than working with the enormous names populating the liner notes of her previous records, she took her band to Bear Creek Studio, located in a barn outside Seattle, Washington. She coproduced the album herself along with the Hanseroths and Trina Shoemaker, and describes the process as considerably more introspective. "Bear Creek was definitely less thought out and more spontaneous than previous records," she says. "It was recorded in an oasis of sorts; outside of an industry city and thus outside of an industry's reach." It's worth noting that, while Bear Creek may be an oasis, it's hardly a backwater — Lionel Richie, Soundgarden and Built to Spill are a few of the studio's previous patrons.
So there are more acoustic instruments on Bear Creek than on Carlile's previous records, and the compositions do seem a little more congenial. But — and this is meant very much as a compliment — most of its songs fit comfortably among the rest of the catalogue she and the Hanseroths have written. "Keep Your Heart Young" is a small wonder, a simple and messy ode to staving off cynicism. It didn't make the setlist at the Dave Matthews Band show in St. Louis, but "100" did. That's the new album's most gorgeous song, and Carlile's voice, wise and clear, came floating across the lawn. It's a pity more people weren't ready for it, but that's not why they came.
The crowd at Red Rocks would be prepared. Carlile had been dealing with some health issues, and by the time she got to Colorado her throat was a genuine concern. But it takes greater forces than germs, fatigue or even minor emotional breakdowns to impede such a force. By her own estimation, the Red Rocks show would end up being the best of her life. And there's more coming.