It’s been a handful of days since I walked out of New York City’s historic Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall after seeing Brandi Carlile and her stellar band play Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album along with a handful of other songs.
Maybe I finally do know clouds after all because my head has certainly been in them ever since. I am riding a wave of not knowing what to do with the rest of my life but I’m doing so smiling.
By the way, this all happened on the eve of Mitchell’s 78th birthday and I was one of many voices that sang Happy Birthday to her at the end of the night. Joni herself wasn’t there, but I am certain she heard a recording of us later that evening from her California home.
Before I dive into what went down that night in Manhattan, a quick backstory:
Three years ago, I ventured to California for the Joni 75 birthday celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles where I saw an all-star assemblage of musicians, including Carlile, play Joni songs all night long. I was there on the first night. On the second, Mitchell herself was there as it was her birthday. That’s the closest I’ll ever likely come to being in the same room as Joni.
Back in the 90s I had tickets to see Joni perform in Massachusetts but for reasons I can’t recall, the show was canceled. I’ve never seen her perform live but I am now, finally, OK with this having witnessed what I did at Carnegie Hall. Carlile reminded us to be thankful for the fact that we are indeed living in the time of Mitchell and she’s right. Boy is she right.
I scribbled notes like a woman possessed while also taking in every sacred second of the performance from my entirely righteous seat about a dozen rows from the stage to the left. I can read most of my handwriting but even if I didn’t jot down a single word the show is permanently imprinted on me because YES, SONGS ARE LIKE TATTOOS. At least these songs are. Good god almighty.
The show, sermon, celebration, homage, jubilee, event, ceremony (etc.) started at about 8:15 p.m. with a short film featuring footage from Carlile’s initial Blue show that happened in Los Angeles two years ago. It ends with a champagne toast and Brandi saying out loud that she’s determined to perform the show at Carnegie Hall. In other words, she manifested the hell out of this and let it be a giant life lesson for us all.
And then my friends…the show began and there was our queen, decked out in the sharpest blue velvet suit I ever hope to be in the same room as.
Carlile played “Blue” as the sequencing gods intended which of course means in order. This means the first song was “All I Want” and the second I heard the first few dulcimer notes played by Tim Hanseroth I knew that I was witnessing something truly special. Carlile’s vocals, which have never disappointed in the bazillion times I’ve seen her live, were, somehow, all the more glorious as they sang Mitchell’s words.
“Do you want, do you want, do you wanna dance with me baby? Do you wanna take a chance on maybe finding some sweet romance with me baby, well come on.” I mean HOLY SHIT. What’s more, Carlile did indeed dance a bit around the stage during the interlude. Automatic standing ovation.
Then all the musicians except for pianist and musical director Jon Cowherd left the stage and Carlile proudly proclaimed “Welcome to Blue at Carnegie Hall, my heart is pounding!” Hers wasn’t the only one, that’s for damn sure.
Carlile wondered aloud why in the hell she decided to do this to herself then answered her own question. “Blue is such an important album to all of us. I want to give people a chance to see Blue live. I had no interest in re-inventing the wheel,” she explained. Her goal was to perform the album the way Joni would have back in 1971, the year it was released. (Happy 50th Blue!)
“Blue has been a portal or gateway drug into the music of Joni Mitchell,” said Carlile and I concur. Once I heard “Blue” I became ravenous for the rest of Mitchell’s iconic catalog.
Carlile sang “My Old Man” with Cowherd on the grand piano. And how grand it was. “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall, keeping us tied and true, no my old man, keeping away my blues.” Look, I know we all overuse the word “epic” but GODDAMN IT THIS WAS EPIC. It really was.
This was the moment that I realized if the show ended right then and there I would have been satisfied.
But there were eight more “Blue” songs to come including some serious heavy hitters so I collected myself, and sat transfixed, ready, or so I thought, for “Little Green.”
Carlile has told the tale several times of how she and her wife Catherine Shepherd had their first disagreement when Brandi shunned “Blue” much to Catherine’s dismay. Apparently, Carlile didn’t think Mitchell was tough enough as a songwriter, especially because of the “I wanna shampoo you” line in “All I Want.” Shepherd then told Carlile that the song “Little Green” was about a very young Mitchell giving up her daughter for adoption in 1965. Then Shepherd played the track for her wife. Carlile told us, before singing it herself, that the song changed her life and changed what femininity meant to her. “I think this is the toughest song in the history of rock and roll that I’m about to play.” And play it she did. How any of us held it together that night I’ll never know.
Next up was “Carey” and Carlile’s words of “All right, we need to party now!” With a full band that included guest singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius. There were, of course, The Twins (Carlile’s career-long bandmates and songwriting parners Tim and Phil Hanseroth) and a string section that included her longtime cellist Josh Neumann. All told, the ensemble was 13 musicians strong. Oh and hi there, Matt Chamberlain, rock star drummer!
Carlile invited us to sing along with “Carey” though not all that many did, at least in my area. We were, after all, to hear her golden pipes and there was no need to drown them out with our own. “Carey” was phenomenal.
It was just the piano and string section of two violins and two cellos for “Blue’s” title track. It was breathtaking. To hear Brandi Carlile sing these lines damn near levitated me straight through the ceiling of a hall that was built in the late 1800s. Part of me is still floating in the ether above Seventh Avenue.
‘Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go well
I don’t think so, but I’m
Gonna take a look around it though Blue
I love you’
It was back to the full band for “California” and Carlile declared “I think we’re all in Laurel Canyon tonight.” Tim Hanseroth’s dulcimer made sure of that. As did the pedal steel guitar I heard.
I think my favorite song of the night was “This Flight Tonight.” Holly and Jess joined Carlile who played an acoustic guitar. Looking at my notes, I see I scribbled five big stars on the page about this song. The sound was, well shit it was almost three-dimensional. This version went well beyond the album’s less than three minutes and every moment was glorious and jaw-dropping.
But there was no time to recover or bask in the afterglow because it was time to pull out one of the big guns. It was time for “River.” This one Carlile handled on her own at the piano. “I got drunk at Joni’s house one night and I tried to play this. It did not go over well. Herbie Hancock was there. It was fucked up,” shared Carlile to much laughter. She went on to say she thinks “River” redefined the way people look at Christmas music. “At some point in every person’s life it’ll be a holiday filled with loneliness or grief. There needed to be a song that embraces it,” said Carlile who is absolutely correct. Then she said the best thing she could have possibly said at that moment before playing the song: “So, Merry Fucking Christmas!”
Carlile destroyed me and everyone else in that hall that night with her rendition of “River.” Her vocals. I don’t think I’ll ever land on quite the right words to describe them.
Now then. I have a declaration. There will NEVER be a stronger one-two punch of an album that “River” into “A Case of You.” It’s just not possible. How these songs exist at all, let alone written by the SAME person on the SAME album right after each other. I can’t even… I know you can’t either. I imagine it’s just one of the reasons why Carlile considers “Blue” to be the greatest album ever made.
So I sit here not really knowing what to even say about Carlile singing “A Case of You.” And I think that’s everything you need to know.
“Blue” closes out with “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” When Carlile and company played it, the song seemed to get bigger as it went along. More cinematic and huge. It was like a cauldron of sounds was being stirred before us. A wild tempest. That finally glided down like a butterfly. I’ve never heard anything like it.
And although that was the final song from “Blue,” the show wasn’t over. Oh hell no.
For the first encore, Carlile visited “Ladies of the Canyon” for “Woodstock.” With Holly and Jess by her side we didn’t just go back to the garden. We were transported there via magic carpet and rocket ship. Jesus Christ. Carlile played her electric guitar and there was a wall of sound that filled every inch of that auditorium. This take on “Woodstock” had fangs. It was spectacular.
Carlile with a Twin on either side of her, took to the edge of the stage without microphones to pay homage to the building itself and the stories it holds. The three of them sang “Cannonball” from Carlile’s breakthrough album “The Story.” I’ve heard them play if this way a few times before but this, this was something entirely different.
On October 1, Carlile released her seventh studio album “In These Silent Days.” She told us that she allowed herself to go full-on Joni for one song, “You and Me on the Rock.” When she played it for Mitchell, Joni told her it “Sounded like a hit.” I”m pretty sure it’s well on its way to being just that. As with on the album, the Carnegie version featured Holly and Jess and wow, they sang the hell out of it.
The last studio album Joni Mitchell released was 2007’s “Shine” and the title track is how Carlile chose to end her unforgettable night in Manhattan. It was she, Holly and Jess and pianist Jon Cowherd. I’d heard the song before but it wouldn’t have mattered. This was the perfect choice to go out on because it’s pure Joni and is a plea to heal the planet and every human and animal on it. Nobody write a song quite like Joni Mitchell and this was no exception. This is why I’m gonna share a bunch of the “Shine” lyrics.
“Oh, let your little light shine
Shine, shine, shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on good humor
Shine on good will
Shine on lousy leadership
Licensed to kill
Shine on dying soldiers
In patriotic pain
Shine on mass destruction
In some God’s name
Shine on the pioneers
Those seekers of mental health
They traveled inward
Let their little lights shine
May all their little lights shine”
So there it is. Brandi Carlile performing “Blue” at Carnegie Hall. It just doesn’t get any better.
But I am gonna share one more little story from the night because it speaks directly to the kind of person Carlile is.
My friends and I were out at a bar post-show when we got tipped off where the after party was. Still on a high from the performance and with no other particular place to go, ten of us hot-stepped it back a half mile or so to a joint across the street from Carnegie. It was well after midnight at this point but we were having a blast trying to catch a glimpse of Carlile and her celebrity packed party through the curtains. We knew we were silly but we didn’t care. When in Rome, right?
Sure enough, the evening winded down and Carlile came out and chatted, signed autographs and took photos with ALL OF US and by then our numbers had doubled. My selfie is mortifying so I won’t be sharing that here but I did ask Carlile how she was feeling and said she was relieved it was over but was feeling really good. Carlile certainly did not need to take the time to visit with us after one of the longest days of her life but she did it anyway because she loves her fans. This will never be lost on me. She’s a real-deal kind human. She’s also one of the most tremendous artists I’ve ever had the honor of interviewing several times through the years, writing about a whole bunch, seeing live more times that I can remember and most of all, just being a fan of.
SONGS ARE LIKE TATTOOS.