When I attended the Indigo Girls with the Nashville Symphony at the end of May, I had an absolutely revelatory experience. The songs, the scores, and the performances all converged to simultaneously take my breath away and breathe new life into a catalog of music I’ve been enjoying for more than 25 years. Chasing that same high, I eagerly anticipated Brandi Carlile’s previously postponed performance in Schermerhorn Hall. Also, I’ve seen Carlile in myriad settings — solo, trio, and band in both small spaces and big Bowls — and she has never failed to deliver. Further still, Brandi is no stranger to fronting an orchestra — her Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony is one of the few live albums that I genuinely enjoy — and even travels with her own conductor, Jason Weinberger. Add all that up and, surely, we were in for a mind-blowing evening, my companion and me. (Said companion, while not a professional musician, is a classically trained violinist who has performed with symphonies, as well as a self-proclaimed Carlile lover.)
As they generally do for symphony shows, Carlile and the brothers Hanseroth (Phil on bass, Tim on guitar) took the stage to open for themselves with “Have You Ever” and “Dreams.” While Carlile’s voice, the keystone here, got a little lost in the shuffle, her charm was front and center as she remarked, “Don’t let the sophistication of the evening fool you. This is a total shitshow.” With that, the trio dedicated “Keep Your Heart Young” to the good folks of the 615, Carlile leading the crowd in a clap-along toward the end. When I scowled in the direction of my sidekick and asked her what was wrong with this picture, she was spot on: “Friends don’t let friends clap on the one and three.” No, they really don’t.
Next up was “Again Today.” Now, Brandi issued a disclaimer at the top saying that she doesn’t normally do that tune in an acoustic set up because it doesn’t work very well, but it was a request, so… Yeah, the bulk of it didn’t work that well, not until she let loose with her signature wail and the twins lent some muscle to it. Then it was okay. Sidekick? “Correct.”
No worries, mate. Stepping off their mics and to the front edge of the stage, the trio shared a Crosby, Stills, & Nash-inspired song off the next record. “The Eye” was a harmonic marvel and just, really, a great song that deserved the standing ovation it received. Right, sidekick? “That was so awesome!” The threesome kept the goodness going with a potent cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” before breaking for intermission.
Looking like the third Hanseroth brother, Weinberger took to the conductor’s box and led us into “Follow.” Again (or still), Carlile’s voice got lost in the mix (and the song went missing in some tempo discrepancies). Knowing now that Weinberger is Carlile’s regular conductor makes the flubs slightly more egregious, but the bulk of the night’s blame gets pointed at the orchestrator(s). Unlike the Indigo Girls’ scores, which let the symphony absolutely shine and soar, these arrangements made the orchestra seem utterly inconsequential. The percussion guys didn’t have any real chance to earn their pay. For instance, “Raise Hell” could have easily burned some barns with pulsing percussion and punchy horns. (It didn’t.)
That’s not to say there weren’t some true highlights like when the players built up and dropped out of “Fall Apart,” leaving Brandi’s voice lingering on its own or when the strings supported the harmonies of “I Will” as the horns sounded their responses in the chorus.
Moving over the the piano for “Before It Breaks,” Carlile humbled herself in front of the symphony by saying, “To this day, I don’t know what key it’s in. You guys do. You’re real musicians.” As glorious as this song is, I wanted heart-wrenching swells to really make it sing. (I did not get them.) Other songs felt smaller than they should have, as well, but more appropriately so. The light touch of the woodwinds and brass were not necessarily out of place on “Shadow on the Wall” nor were the lilting trills and delicate strings of “Cannonball.” Finally, “100” brought what seemed like the first use of tympani the whole evening along with some nice low-end brass and a big rock ending. My sidekick noticed, too: “That was the best one yet.”
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Back on piano for the mesmerizing “That Wasn’t Me,” Brandi enthused that the Nashville Symphony was “maybe the best symphony in the country.” So USE them. Let them loose. “The Story” would be the perfect number to do so. After a solo acoustic first verse, the orchestra did, indeed, sneak in and make its presence known. Still, would it kill you guys to throw in some cymbal swells or tympani rolls? Apparently not missing those flourishes like I was, the audience jumped to their feet in appreciation. A similar formula was applied to “Pride and Joy” — acoustic start before the twins join in and the orchestra seals the deal with a big closing section. But I have to ask… why use stomp boxes when, yet again, the percussionists are just sitting there waiting (probably itching) to play? To be fair, one guy did do a couple of bumps on the bass drum that I would have missed had I not been watching him.
Trading the twins for her sister, Tiffany, Carlile eased into an acoustic reading of Jane Siberry’s thoroughly haunting “Calling All Angels,” which she dedicated to her new baby daughter, Evangeline. While it’s impossible to match the original, the sisters Carlile did a nice job.
For the final performance of the evening, Brandi turned to Leonard Cohen’s most oft-covered masterpiece, “Hallelujah.” It seemed natural and right for the harp to swoop in and play off Brandi’s voice, but it seemed like a missed opportunity to not have the rest of the orchestra play off the lyrics: “It goes like this — the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.” Nothing. Instead, the strings merely echoed Carlile in the chorus. Things came more alive in the interlude as the horns rose up over the strings before leaving Brandi to sing the hell out of the remaining verses. Another standing ovation ensued, and rightfully so.
Brandi Carlile is a fantastic talent and a beguiling entertainer, so even a somewhat flawed performance by her is still better than the overwhelming majority of live music experiences I wade through. Sidekick? “She’s amazing.”
This article originally appeared on No Depression.