Brandi Carlile has a fiercely devoted fanbase. A singer songwriter blessed with oodles of talent in both disciplines, she is a formidable artist. She has a notable gay following, being a proud lesbian, but this is not her appeal. She is a writer that commands your attention with wonderful lyrics and a voice bigger than any venue she can fill.
Tonight is was her and “the twins”, a duo of multi-instrumentalists that join her both on stage and for co-writing duties. With no rhythm section, I was mildly disappointed to start. Never have I been to a gig where the opening act had a more complex setup than the headliner. Side note – the warm-up act “Holly and the Wolf” were rather excellent. Smooth songs and a lovely vocal; I’ll be watching out for these guys.
I needn’t had felt let down. With three acoustic guitars and three mics they made some huge music. Rather simply employing a deadened acoustic guitar as a bass drum stand in on some tracks, we had our beat, and the guitar strumming took the lead from there. Brandi is no purveyor of complex chord sequences. Instead she reminds us of the wonders that can still be made with a handful of chords, mixed with the right words and melodies. Is this not what we all love music for in the first place, the primal simplicity that hits us at our core?
The performance was as rootsy and barebones as you could imagine. There were no stage hands coming on between songs for guitar changes. She largely stuck with the one, battered axe, tuning her own guitar between songs as us lowly small time musicians must at gigs. And why not? She doesn’t need the slightly altered guitar tones from a dreadnaught to a jumbo to a mini – she has playing style and dynamics to employ. And of course, with the tuning comes the stage banter. Worried that the crowd tonight were going to get “rowdy or randy” early on, she brought both an American charm and worldly cheek that was thoroughly refreshing. Some American artists find themselves missing the mark over this side of the pond with the all-American earnestness. Brandi is warm and honest. Instead of a fully prepared set list, she had half a dozen ‘request’ spots littered through her set. What could have been a cheesy gesture instead felt like a very human way of connecting with a group of fans that she didn’t yet know well enough. How better to tailor her set to an audience she is still getting to grips with than to ask them what they want to hear!?
Brandi’s connection with the twins clearly runs deep. Their repertoire is large – four full studio albums and growing – but they didn’t miss a beat, even on the songs that were requested across the evening.
Islington assembly hall is a funny venue. Perhaps the cleanest, brightest and most clinical gig venue I have ever seen, the acoustics were, thankfully, wonderful. “Wood is good” as they say, and this venue has its share. This became very apparent on the couple of tracks where Brandi and the Twins ditched the mics, unplugged the guitars, and played 100% acoustically. Never was it more evident just how big a voice this lady has. To fill a room this size on lungpower along is no small feat, especially for a small lass like her.
The venue had absolute minimal dressing. A couple of lights and some dark curtains. Most school plays have better lighting rigs. It mattered not, of course.
Brandi is a proper guitarist. No strummer-for-show, she knows her way around the fretboard and plays comfortably while singing. But she is also very comfortable downing arms and letting the lads take the accompaniment while she sings mic alone. This kind of thing would scare me as stands. Our guitars are our shields. She is happy parrying with just her sword.
Her songs breathe. They bend. They mould to her tremendous vocal in the most unique of ways that is hard not to envy. She is a show lady of the classic style. Her work speaks for her, but she is happy to be playful with her songs. Playing the audience involvement card during one of her big numbers, she gave the left side of the room the melody, the right the octave, and then (quite bravely) the middle were to sing the 5th. Unsurprisingly, it seemed to that the tonics were taking precedence.
She recently wed her partner in a ceremony over in the UK. As an honorary Brit, she promised us she would be here far more often. She ended by thanking our country for opening embracing and celebrating all love. She stepped forward, no microphone nor guitar, and finished on a fully a cappella rendition of “Amazing grace” as her thank you to Britain. It could easily have fallen flat on an earnestness-allergic English crowd.
Quite amazingly, It didn’t.