On Friday, Brandi Carlile performed before a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Theater. Her performance’s quality was no surprise; Carlile is an established singer-songwriter who has honed her stagecraft over a decade and a half. The structure of her show, however, was both unexpected and downright thrilling.
The performance opened, not with Carlile, but with a string quartet that played for several minutes. By this point, of course, the audience was plenty warmed-up. Opening act The Secret Sisters, who were as delightful in their inter-song banter as they were in their two-part harmonies, had received a standing ovation. When the Hanseroth twins (Carlile’s longtime band members, who sing backing vocals and play guitar and bass) walked onto the stage, the crowed erupted. The roar only grew louder seconds later when Carlile took the stage herself, opening with “Every Time I Hear That Song.”
For the next two hours, Carlile could do no wrong. She and the twins showed off their CSN-esque harmonies on “The Eye.” Later, she looked as if she was about to toss her hollow-body electric guitar into the air and let it break as she finished “Mainstream Kid,” her self-deprecating yet delightful mainstream rock song from 2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter. Between songs, she effortlessly weaved together humor and heartbreak as she told the stories behind them. Before “The Mother,” for example, she relayed the hilarious anecdote of getting “the dad talk” during her wife’s pregnancy, all framed by the importance of normalizing her unconventional family.
Carlile’s ultimate heat check, however, came midway through the performance. First, she and the twins played “Cannonball,” unplugged and unmic’d, with just their voices and The Chicago Theater’s acoustics. I was in the second level of the balcony and heard it just fine. She then proceeded to cover Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You” and Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” in succession. Look, I love Carlile’s voice – the way it cracks while remaining melodic is fantastic. Even I was surprised when she managed to pull off those songs back-to-back , though.
For her encore, Carlile brought out 4-year-old daughter Evangeline for an adorable rendition “Happy Birthday.” She followed that up with a full-band performance of “Hold Out Your Hand,” a half-bluegrass, half anthem track from this year’s By The Way I Forgive You. To close, she and The Secret Sisters performed “Amazing Grace.” Once again, this was done without microphones or amps. By the time Carlile encouraged the crowed to join, there were few dry eyes and fewer quiet voices in the house.