When Brandi Carlile and her band last played Chicago in June 2019, they were riding a breakthrough high. Carlile and twin bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth had spent nearly two decades of building a modest but fervent following based on their wide range of talents, from poignant, straight-to-the-heart songwriting to guitar-shredding rockouts. Then in February 2019, they reached the masses with their performance of “The Joke” on the Grammy Awards show.
The celebratory vibe of that show at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island — part of what Carlile describes as their “victory lap” — was stopped cold by the COVID shutdown that relegated her and the twins to doing live-streamed acoustic concerts. But there was no rust on them when they returned to touring this year, with a stop in Chicago, again at Huntington Bank Pavilion, on Saturday night.
In fact, the band, which also includes percussion, piano and a four-piece string quartet, appeared to be feeding off energy banked during their time off the road, which was echoed back to them by the full house of nearly 10,000 attendees for well more than two hours. The concert provided subtle evidence of how much her fan base has broadened and deepened.
In 2019, she prefaced several songs with explanations of their back stories. On Saturday, she didn’t, presumably because most already knew. And most seemed to know the lyrics to every song the band played.
Despite the pandemic, the three-plus years in between Chicago concerts have been a period of enormous professional growth for Carlile. In late 2019, she joined with country music stars Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires, and without fanfare joined the group when it opened for Chris Stapleton at Wrigley Field on July 23.
She also built a friendship with Joni Mitchell that led to a piece of popular music history on July 24, when Mitchell, who has had years of serious health issues, made her first live appearance in two decades during Carlile’s set at Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival. Carlile, as she often does in concert, tipped her hat to Mitchell, with a cover of her “Woodstock” during the encore. Yet Carlile appears star-struck about when talking about her own long road to overnight success, and the improbability of her friendship with childhood idol Elton John, who on Friday brought his farewell tour to Chicago’s Soldier Field.
And while every rock artist ever has shouted “We love you, [fill in city name]” at concerts, Carlile’s affection for Chicago and the clubs the band played on their way up feels genuine. “We made it all the way from Schuba’s to this place,” she said Saturday during a break in the music.
She has also paid back women artists, no longer chart toppers, who inspired her to pursue her musical career. Ani DiFranco (who I last saw in concert at the height of her popularity 25 years ago in the Washington, D.C., suburbs), took the stage and did a set of nine songs with her trademark pungent lyrics about love, sexuality, politics and religion. A recent concert featuring Sarah McLachlan as an opening act was held at the Gorge, an outdoor amphitheater in Quincy, Washington, where a teenaged Carlile met and received personal advice from McLachlan during the Lilith Fair festival of women performers she co-created.
Carlile’s tours also featured highly talented musicians who haven’t quite achieved star status. Saturday’s opener was Celisse, a Black woman vocalist and electric guitarist who performed what must be the most amped-up cover of Bill Withers’ “Use Me” ever, then returned to the stage to accompany on three songs during Carlile’s set.
Carlile and her band jammed in 20 songs (including a six-song encore and seven songs from their 2021 album In These Silent Days) that showed the versatility that is their trademark, but has also made them hard for the music industry to classify. With a style that is a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll and a lot singer-songwriter, the band has for years been included in the Americana genre, which Carlile jokingly calls “the island of misfit toys.”
The band can rock, wasting no time getting to that with the cheeky “Mainstream Kid” as the set’s second song. An acerbic (and funny) rebuke to those in the industry who told them that they’d never succeed unless they went mainstream, the song was released in 2015, before they hit the big time; now that they have made it despite that “advice,” it’s kind of like spiking the football.
The band’s performance during the encore of “Hold Out Your Hand,” a hands-in-the-air crowd-pleaser, also produced the evening’s “aww” moment. Daughter Evangeline often appears on stage for one number at Carlile’s concerts, and during this one, a crew member draped an adult-sized Chicago Cubs jersey on her with “Carlile 22” on the back.
Carlile, though, is best known for emotion-grabbing ballads that employ her multi-octave, note-extending voice. “The Story” is about receiving unconditional love, “Party of One” (which she sang while soloing on piano) is about giving unconditional love. “The Joke” champions perseverance over bigotry and marginalization. “The Eye,” a beautiful three-part harmony piece performed by Carlile and the twins, is a plea to a loved one who is wasting their life. “The Mother” is a personal reflection on the joys and challenges of motherhood.
“You and Me on the Rock,” from the latest album, refers to the house she and her wife Catherine had built on a rock for them, Evangeline (the subject of “The Mother”), and younger daughter Elijah. Carlile, who came out when she was a teenager, told the audience that despite the challenges of the pandemic, she realized she was “a big happy gay.”
Carlile also dug into four widely varied covers, including David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” “Creep” by Radiohead and Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” She closed the show by singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland’s signature song from The Wizard of Oz, with a backdrop of rainbow colors.
And Carlile, after a long professional journey, found the land where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
All Photos by Bob Benenson