Brandi Carlile reaches supernatural high with ‘Blue’ performance at Carnegie Hall

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’

Transcendental.

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
Craving simplicity
They traveled inward
Past themselves
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.

REMEMBER:

SONGS ARE LIKE TATTOOS.

Mural on Stanton Street in New York City. 11/6/21. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Yours truly outside Carnegie Hall. Photo by Marian Starkey

Ponti out.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration: All-star artists gather in Los Angeles to say I Love You, Joni, right out loud

There aren’t enough deep breaths in the world to settle me down enough so that I can be calm and properly centered to be able to write this review.

Why?

Because in one of the most unexpected concert experiences of  my life I saw these artists pay tribute to Joni Mitchell in honor of her 75th birthday by performing her songs live:

Brandi Carlile, Glen Hansard, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, Diana Krall, Kris Kristofferson, Los Lobos with La Marisoul, Cesar Castro & Xochi Flores, Graham Nash, SEAL, James Taylor and Rufus Wainwright.

For real.

How can I begin to wrap my head around this? A handful of days ago (Tuesday, 11/6/18 to be exact)  I sat in the fourth row of the balcony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and watched and listened as, one by one, all of these artists were introduced and backed by a STELLAR band under the direction of co-musical directors Brian Blade (drums) and Jon Cowherd (piano) performed an eclectic collection of career-spanning Joni Mitchell songs.

It was nothing short of a miracle that I was even at this show to begin with. A California trip with another agenda was already booked when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a Tweet telling me that Brandi Carlile and James Taylor had been added to the already stacked lineup and more importantly, a handful of tickets had been released. With my calendar in one hand and my credit card in the other I snagged two tickets in a state of delirium and for the next month leading up the show had to pinch myself because I felt like Charlie Bucket holding the golden ticket.

The stage at the gorgeous Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was adorned with an old canoe, wooden skis and other retro, rustic props that gave it a cabin in the woods kind of feel. Couches were on either side and were both put to good use throughout the evening. Nothing quite like seeing Emmylou Harris perched on one watching other artists. I digress.

Throughout the entire show images of Joni were projected on a giant screen behind the stage and we’d also see occasional clips of interviews with her as well as well wishes from Elton John and Peter Gabriel.

And so it began, just after 7:30 p.m. on election night no less.

A voice welcomed us and the first artist was announced. With said announcement came the first of several heart-stopping moments. It was Norah Jones who stood center stage and opened the show with a lovely version of “Court and Spark.” Jones would return to the stage during the second half of the show, this time at the piano where she played “Borderline,” a track from Mitchell’s 1994 Turbulent Indigo album.

When Jones finished with “Court and Spark” I realized that I had an entire evening of moments ahead of me when time would stand still for a few seconds before the next name was announced. If only this kind of exquisite anticipation could be bottled.

Glen Hansard was next with “Coyote” and the dude nailed it, which came as no surprise. With vocals that made me think of Cat Stevens it was a joyous thing to watch Hansard shine with his acoustic guitar.

While I could say something about every single song that was played during the 22 song show, I know you have to get back to your life at some point so instead, I’m referring to my scribbled notes and will share what were my favorite moments of the night. But let me a thousand percent clear before I do. EVERY SINGLE PERFORMER WAS EPIC and it can’t be stated enough how spectacular the band was.

That said, I’m gonna jump to the seventh song of the evening. It was “Help Me” from “Court and Spark” and OMG, Chaka Khan owned it. Immensely. I don’t even know what to say about it so here’s this:

Two songs later came Los Lobos with Marisoul playing “Nothing Can Be Done,” a favorite of mine from 1991’s “Night Ride Home.” Spectacular.

Truly nothing could have prepared me for the song that closed out the first set. I’ve since read that Joni specifically asked SEAL to perform it. I have the chills even thinking about how incredible and vocally tremendous he was on “Both Sides Now.”

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Seal performs onstage at Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Put on some headphones and be prepared to lose your shit. Ready?


As you can imagine, we all went insane at the end of the song and SEAL got a much-deserved standing ovation.

The house lights came back on and I sat there in a daze because I couldn’t believe there was still a second set to come.

And so it was that Graham Nash opened the second set of the show by sitting at the grand piano where he said “I’m honored to be here. Most of the songs you’ll hear tonight will have been written by Joan except this one. I wrote this song for Joni almost 50 years ago.” With that, Nash played “Our House” and I got full-on teary. Halfway through the song he invited us all too sing along. Most did. I was too overwhelmed with emotion to pull it together but everyone else sounded great. I did manage one  “la  la la la la” out  but barely.  And damn it, I’m getting teary again watching the YouTube clip of it even now.

Quick but supreme shout-outs to Diana Krall for “Amelia” and Rufus Waingwright for “All I Want.” Both were exceptional and I have huge love for both artists. My god…

If you’ve ever read any of my other posts here (and I sure hope you have or will) you likely know that I am a MASSIVE BRANDI CARLILE FAN. HUGE. RABID. HARDCORE. She was indeed the artist I was most excited to see and along with SEAL, Carlile was the highlight of the night for me.

First came “A Case Of You” from 1971’s “Blue”  which she sang with Kris Kristofferson who also played an acoustic guitar.  Kristofferson is a living legend. He’s 82 years young. Look, I’ll level with you and you’ll hear it for yourself below, his vocals weren’t so hot but I say this with reverence and respect. The man can do no wrong. Carlile clearly holds him in the same regard as the rest of us and the smile on her face, one of adoration and of realizing the significance of the moment was one of the most genuine goddamn things I’ve ever had the honor to bear witness to. She deferred to him for much of the song but when she sang, and I’m sorry but I HAVE to use profanity, it brought the fucking house down.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Brandi Carlile (L) and Kris Kristofferson perform onstage at Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Then it was time for Carlile to shine on her own as she sang “Down To You,” another track from Court and Spark.  Her performance of that song has been absorbed by my very cells.

Here’s a clip of “Both Sides Now” and “Down To You.” Take note of (and you really don’t need me to say this, it will be quite evident) how tremendous the band is during “Down To You).  When “Down To You” ended I clapped and cheered with everything I had. Part of me is still in Los Angeles in that balcony and I’m still cheering.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Brandi Carlile performs onstage at Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Time for another shout-out. This time to James Taylor for “Woodstock.” It didn’t hurt ONE BIT that SEAL lent some backing vocals to it.

The time had come to land the Joni love plane and I’m awarding high marks to all those involved in the decision of what song to end with. It had to be one that would work with several singers. And it had to be iconic. And upbeat also wouldn’t hurt.

“Big Yellow Taxi” got it done.

I was at the first night of two shows. This clip below is from the second night which fell on the official date of Joni’s 75th birthday. Joni Mitchell was out on the stage for it and everyone sang Happy Birthday to her. A cake was brought out and she’s beaming.  Although I wish I had been there on that night, I will always be thankful for being at night one. I had tickets to see Mitchell in the mid 90s but the show ended up being cancelled (I can’t remember why) so I’ve never seen her live. But that’s OK for obvious reasons: Joni Mitchell’s contribution to music can’t be measured. Her songwriting is something that I’ll always be in awe of. Same goes for her vocals. And if you’ll pardon the tired cliche I’ll say this: the world is very much a better place with Joni Mitchell and her music in it.  I don’t know what else to say about it so I’ll leave it there.

Years from now as I look back on the night of November 6, 2018, I am certain those same feelings will come over me that did as I sat there and took it all in: Ones of sincere wonder and awe. Ones of immense gratitude. And ones of love for all of the artists who performed that night all because of a shared sentiment: Love for Joni Mitchell.

Lastly, I for sure would like to thank my spouse Tracy for dealing with my hysteria over this entire show and for going with me to it. You’re the best!

Here’s the set-list:

1. Court and Spark – Norah Jones
2. Coyote – Glen Hansard
3. For the Roses – Diana Krall
4. Blue – Rufus Wainwright
5. Cold Blue Steel – Emmylou Harris
6. The Magdalene Laundries – Emmylou Harris
7. Help Me – Chaka Khan
8. Dreamland – Los Lobos
9. Nothing Can Be Done – Los Lobos
10. River – James Taylor
11. Both Sides Now – Seal

INTERMISSION

12. Our House – Graham Nash
13. A Strange Boy – Seal
14. All I Want – Rufus Wainwright
15. Borderline – Norah Jones
16. Amelia – Diana Krall
17. The Boho Dance – Glen Hansard
18 A Case of You – Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile
19. Down To You – Brandi Carlile
20. Two Grey Rooms – Chaka Khan
21. Woodstock – James Taylor
22. Big Yellow Taxi – Everyone (!)

And here’s a Spotify Playlist of all of the songs performed, in order!

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/eastcoastaimsel/playlist/4hlc1Q2vOsZipr1e2g1cQj

Ponti out.

P.S. Here are a couple of MIGHTY FINE shots from night two. You gotta love how Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones are in the background of the one of Brandi and Kris with Joni.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 07: (L-R) Joni Mitchell, Brandi Carlile and Kris Kristofferson attend Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 07: James Taylor (L) and Joni Mitchell attend Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live At The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on November 7, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Center


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