We’ve seen Brandi Carlile before, we’ve walked the very same steps at Merriweather Post Pavilion, sat under the same stars, even heard some of the same songs. But no part of us could prepare for the joy-letting, the rampant release of emotion, the impossible catharsis, and the absolute connectedness of this recent show.
Fresh off winning three Grammys (obligatory celebratory statement, that) for her most recent album, By the Way, I Forgive You, Brandi practically sprung onto the Merriweather stage on June 14, a massive smile on her face, the audience exploding to their feet in anticipation. Tim and Phil Hanseroth flanked her onstage, though each — as always, since the beginning — took their own turns as the centers of attention, their expressive playing (and faces) adding textures to the music.
Stream By The Way, I Forgive You by Brandi Carlile on Spotify:
Appropriately, the show featured songs from By the Way, I Forgive You, though a few judicious choices from her catalog (and some stunning covers) left few stones unturned. The album, and much of Brandi’s work as a whole, deals heavily in themes of reconciliation and penitence, of resurrection and reviving, of lost faith and rediscovered hope. And at the core of it all, honest joy — at being alive, at being able to live, at the little rebellions and the big celebrations, the right to exist and the encouragement of others to exist. The modeling of good love, but also of acceptance and recognizing emotion in the self.
Brandi Carlile and her band
It is not a stretch to call the audience at a Brandi Carlile joy a congregation, to call the show itself a service, or perhaps a conflagration at a revival in the woods. To those of us who knew church (or still know it) and the connectedness that sharing faith with a community can bring, Brandi’s show feels familiar, like wine on Sunday morning.
After greeting the audience with wide smiles and a bow, Brandi picked up her acoustic guitar, flanked by Tim on electric and Phil on bass. The twins donned their best rock and roll faces, Brandi jumped up and down, and they tore into “Hold Out Your Hand.” They brought a full band behind them, including a string trio (who doubled as a choral group that, oddly enough, also included band photographer Pete Souza). Brandi and the band briefly brought it back down for “Wherever is Your Heart,” which — in true Brandi Carlile style — eventually exploded into a singalong, keeping the audience bouncing.
In what I assume is a moment that comes every show, Brandi introduced a song that she’s “played many times,” tearing open a veil between her and the audience, as she strummed the opening chords to “The Story,” easily her biggest hit. Written by Phil before they were even a band (keeping in mind that Brandi and the twins share songwriting credits equally). The audience, from the front of the floor to the back of the lawn, young and old, erupted to their feet, dancing in aisles and on sun-dried sod, a chorus of voices singing every word from the core of their beings. At the end — just a few songs into the set, mind you — everyone stayed on their feet, cheering as though the show had ended, an immediate kind of thank you for playing a song that carries so much meaning and so much weight for so many people.
It wouldn’t be the first time they earned this reaction on the night.
Brandi spent some time talking about the band’s history — 18 years playing together — and shared that one constant, one consistent thread between them has been a love for three-part harmonies. Fittingly, they floated into “The Eye” of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, its refrain of “I wrapped your love around me like a chain / But I never was afraid that it would die / You can dance in a hurricane / But only if you’re standing in the eye” — a reminder of faith in love amidst hard times.
In the middle of the set, the band embarked on a trio of covers, first inviting opener Lucius to sing around a single mic with Brandi (“Dusty Trails”), a Lucius original about growing older but holding onto hope. Brandi then shared that she wanted to sing a song by one of the greatest songwriters of all time, sinking into Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and then following with a loose and explosive version of Elton John’s “Madman on the Water.”
Brandi fittingly followed this with a monologue about the right to have her family, the fight for equality and to express love freely, introducing “The Mother.” Her voice rose and fell like the tide, steady and constant, reinforcing her role as a champion. People whooped and cheered her, then cried as she sang. The ups and downs of a Brandi Carlile show, or even just every song.
A personal favorite of mine, “The Joke” (a Grammy Award-winning song) followed shortly, a song that sticks to my heart easily and quickly. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have almost every category of privilege, but the message still resonates and quiets the terrors of my inner heart’s child-self, of the memory of being the deaf kid who talked a little funny. It’s an anthem for the misrepresented or those whose voices aren’t heard often; she again, with this song, reasserts herself as a champion.
After spinning through “Whatever You Do,” “Pride and Joy,” and “Harder to Forgive” in a wild run, they left the stage, everyone knowing they’d return for the encore. A blazing rendition of “Mainstream Kid,” an impossibly cleansing rendition of “Every Time I Hear That Song,” and then Brandi on piano for the wholehearted “Party of One.” Then a wave goodbye, and the crowd began to shuffle out.
Smiles fluttered around Merriweather, people laughed, held hands, and reveled in the shared moments of the show.
And then Brandi walked back onto the stage for a second encore. She said, “I’m going to play a special song for a special night,” just her and a guitar. The opening dance of “Hallelujah” set the crowd ablaze, roaring their stunned approval. The audience lifted their phones like lighters, little white fireflies swaying along. Many of us just stood, slack-jawed, barely moving our lips to sing along.
And then she finished.
And then the band came out for a final, true bow.
Here are some more photos from Brandi Carlile at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 14, 2019. All photos courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.