Brandi Carlile is one of the more versatile songwriters working today. She is capable of everything from pop as clever and ebullient as Taylor Swift’s to folk as wise and incisive as Patty Griffin’s. She can play box-stomping, hard-rocking country in line with recent trends or hymn-like gospel songs that will forever remain evergreen.
At her State Theatre performance Friday, which drew heavily from her latest album, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” she played loud rock, a song without any amplification, solo songs on guitar and piano, a song without any lead vocals at all and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” This wide range of material and stage configurations occasionally robbed the set of any flow, but it also gave the concert the campfire feel of someone singing a bunch of her friends’ favorite songs – and she did that, too, happily taking audience requests for a time. It was all staged with an impressive degree of professionalism.
The band stayed in Portland for a week before the concert, fine-tuning the details of their set prior to their tour. The extra bit of work paid off; guitars were swapped out and instrumental changes shifted with remarkable efficiency.
Their showmanship was also playful and potent. Carlile wore a bright-red tunic, while her all-male band wore identical black getups. Drawing from years of chemistry, the men had all their cues down, coloring her melodies with rhythmic accents and backing-vocal flourishes.
Carlile’s playing and singing came off beautifully; her voice is somehow both youthful and lived-in and showcased incredible character in person.
What stands out with Carlile’s songwriting, aside from her obvious talent and intellect, is her outsized heart and empathy. “That Year,” for example, finds her untangling complicated emotions about a friend’s suicide some 15 years ago. The song somehow nails both the precise character of being a high school student – both hurt and hurtful – and the clarity and maturity of an adult looking back. In concert, she bent her voice carefully around the guitar chords, letting her drawn-out syllables hang in the State Theatre air like fireflies. Despite Carlile’s gift for writing love songs – the slow build of “I Belong to You” was another show highlight – songs such as these, which center on oft-ignored themes of friendship and forgiveness, help attest to her popularity.
Nowhere was her heart more evident than when she spotted an 8-year-old girl with a “Happy Birthday” tiara in the front row and pulled her up on stage for a personal serenade. What began as a simple act of generosity – certainly Carlile didn’t need to interrupt her well-oiled set to indulge a young fan – became far more touching when the young girl requested “Keep Your Heart Young,” a song about retaining your youthful exuberance as you grow older. The girl knew all of the lyrics and took over for the chorus: “You gotta keep your heart young / Don’t go growing old before your time has come.”
The performance not only made the girl’s day but also evoked the essence of the song much better than the band alone could have done. When the crew helped the girl back down from the stage, her mother could be seen wiping tears from her eyes. Who could blame her?
WHERE: State Theatre, Portland
REVIEWED: May 22