To sing un-miked in front of 6,000, the audacity.
Brandi Carlile and her longtime collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, stepped out from behind their mikes for the sold-out crowd at DC’s Anthem on May 19. It didn’t seem possible for their voices to fill the space. Accompanied solely by Carlile’s acoustic guitar, the three launched into “Cannonball” from “The Story,” their 2007 breakthrough album. The original recording featured three women singing; here, Carlile’s voice melded in sanguine three-part harmony with the twins, carrying to the Anthem’s rafters and leaving the audience hushed.
Audacity and experimentation are at the root of what makes Carlile and her band great. Her throaty “scream-singing” has been compared to Janis Joplin more than once.
It all started in Seattle in the late nineties. Carlile, a 17-year old high school dropout and self-taught musician, haunted the city’s gritty clubs, earning a hand-to-mouth living busking at the eponymous Pike Place Market and playing backup to post-grunge hopefuls. Seeking her first break late one night in a smoky venue, she heard “The Fighting Machinists,” fronted by twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Carlile was enthralled.
The Machinists hit the rocks and Carlile convinced the brothers to rehearse one day at her home. When their voices melded in their first chord, she knew that she had found her perfect ensemble. The next day, she pawned all the musical miscellany in her house and bought them each a mike. Delivering her gifts, she successfully persuaded them to join her new venture.
Along with their powerful voices, the Hanseroths brought expert musicianship. Tim plays the guitar and banjo, while Phil strums the bass. Their rich, wild riffs and rhythms betray their indie-pop roots. Playing with supernatural coordination or singing backups, they anticipate Carlile in such an uncanny way that one might think them all related in some past life. Carlile repeatedly paid tribute to their collaboration during her band’s two-night Anthem stand. On this tour, they were accompanied by a string trio, a drummer, and a pianist.
The night opened atmospherically as the lights rose on the string trio playing a medley of the band’s songs. Led by the twins, the remainder of the band ascended the stage. Carlile herself sauntered in, grabbed a guitar, and launched into a rousing version of “Every Time I Hear That Song,” the opener from their 2018 effort, “By The Way, I Forgive You.”
While the band did play “Raise Hell,” “The Story,” and “The Eye, the set lists both nights were primarily drawn from their new material. Many of these songs confess and exalt the challenges of committed relationships and motherhood. Carlile, no doubt aware of DC’s most famous resident several blocks to the north, spoke at length about the challenges of lesbian parenting. She said that she does this at every concert to reinforce how normal her situation is.
Other songs protest the evils of societal ostracization, reminding listeners that all lives have value. A number featured rich textured string arrangements by the late Paul Buckmaster, the force behind many of Elton John’s successful efforts. Carlile noted that these arrangements were Buckmaster’s final compositions before his unexpected death last fall.
One standout performance was the band’s first song authored by bassist Phil Hanseroth, “Fulton County Jane Doe.” Hanseroth wrote the song after hearing about an unidentified woman, found dead in Fulton County, Georgia. Jane’s most notable feature: a tattoo of Jesus on the back of her hand.
God, the whole world’s gone crazy
And there’s only God to blame
Somebody called you something sweet once
It was more than Fulton County Jane
And when my heart has no rest
And a thousand things are on my mind
I’ll always save some room for you
I won’t let you get left behind
Oh, and I always will remember
When the lonely day is through
That somewhere far from Fulton County
A stranger says a prayer for you
The harmonies of the chorus rose—the twins’ back up lending depth and fullness to Carlilie’s throaty croon.
In Sunday’s two-song encore, Darlingside, Carlilie’s handpicked opening act from Boston, MA, rejoined the stage and gave up a pitch-perfect cover of Seven Bridges Road (the Eagles) in four-part harmony. By this time, the seated crowd was on their feet for the final song of the evening.
“Ready for a sing along?” Carlile invited. The band launched into its latest anthem, “Hold Out Your Hand.”
Hold out your hand
Take hold of mine now
Round and round we go
Don’t you wanna dance?
Well he came to my door to sell me the fear
With some cameras and bullets and tension and
Here is a license for killing your own native son
For a careless mistake and a fake plastic gun?
Deliver your brother from violence and greed
For the mountains, lay down for your faith like a seed
A morning is coming of silver and light
The message behind Carlilie’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation: All lives have value. Carlile could have come off as saccharine, preachy, or pandering. When combined with the power of her vocal range and the talents of her musical team, she offered instead an anthem of equality, a renewed vision of optimism, and a reminder of the unifying power of rock and roll.
Perhaps, even the White House heard the audience singing, “What a glorious sight! What a glorious sight!”