Brandi Carlile had built a devoted following since she emerged from the Seattle music scene in 2005, with emotion-driven lyrics and a powerful voice that is a little bit folk, a little bit country-and-western, and a little bit Janis Joplin. Yet her fan base was still considered niche, and when she announced a 2019 tour last winter, filling the 8,600 seats at Chicago’s Huntington Bank Pavilion for her June 29 date could be tough.
That is, until Feb. 10, when Carlile and her band took the stage at the Grammy Awards ceremony and stole the show. Performing “The Joke” —a power ballad declaring the ultimate victory for victims of bullying and bigotry over their tormentors—Carlile dazzled millions, many of whom immediately regretted not knowing much about this immense and unique talent before.
That same day, “The Joke” won Grammys for Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance, and was a finalist for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. By the Way, I Forgive You, Carlile’s 6th studio album, also won Best Americana Album Award. Within two weeks, “The Joke” debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Rock Digital Song Sales chart.
So when Carlile bounded onto the Huntington Bank Pavilion stage Saturday with arms upraised, she was embraced by a packed house of longtime and new fans already out of their seats. Sharing a love for live performance with guitarist/vocalists Phil and Tim Hanseroth—identical twins who have been her musical partners since they met in 2001—Carlile kept the crowd on their feet for a two-hour, 18-song set.
Carlile is no stranger to Chicago, but she previously had played venues such as Schubas and Metro, with the Chicago Theatre being the biggest venue she’s performed at in the city. She noted that the throng at the pavilion on Northerly Island was by far her biggest Chicago audience.
Any Brandi newbie who mistakenly thought they were in for an acoustic folk concert was immediately dissuaded. The opening song, “Hold Out Your Hand” (from the album By the Way, I Forgive You) received thunderous, military march style backing by drummer Chris Powell. This and other rockers, such as “Raise Hell” from the 2012 album Bear Creek, gave Carlile the opportunity to shred with the Hanseroth twins like her guitar had made her angry. The band opened the encore with an audience-participation cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
Yet it is still those power ballads that are Carlile’s signatures. The band delivered, 12 songs in, for those drawn to hear a live performance of “The Joke,” with its triumphant refrain: “Let them laugh while they can/Let them spin/Let them scatter in the wind/I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends/And the joke’s on them.” Carlile and the band paused before her voice soared on the final word. The band’s two cellists and violinist, not the usual entourage for a pop band, played a crucial role in engineering the song’s impact.
The concert also underscored how long Carlile has been exploring a range of fragile emotions. “The Story,” the title song from Carlile’s 2007 second album, is a love song about being accepted, issues, flaws and all: “No, they don’t know who I really am, and they don’t know what I’ve been through/Like you do/I was made for you.” The song “The Eye,” from the 2015 album The Firewatcher’s Daughter, is an appeal to a commitment-phobic love interest who runs away and abuses alcohol.
“The Mother,” from the By The Way, I Forgive You album, is Carlile’s loving but clear-eyed reflection on motherhood. Singing about her first child, Evangeline, Carlile sang, “The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep/She broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep/ She filled my life with color, canceled plans, and trashed my car/ But none of that was ever who we are.” But after noting that “All my rowdy friends are out accomplishing the dreams,” Carlile concludes, “They can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine, ‘Cause I am the mother of Evangeline.”
Carlile is an activist who, with the Hanseroths, created the Looking Out Foundation in 2008 to harness the power of music to benefit a wide range of social causes. She also is gay, having come out when she was 15, and has been married for seven years to Catherine Shepherd, with whom she is raising Evangeline and younger sister Elijah.
So there was extra poignancy when Carlile concluded the concert—with Evangeline watching from a chair onstage—with a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” from the movie The Wizard of Oz. Carlile dedicated it to the Pride Parade that was scheduled to take place the next day in Chicago.
All photos by Bob Benenson.