When Brandi Carlile took the stage at the Orpheum Theater last December, the crowd ignited. The alt-country singer-songwriter unleashed songs such as “Follow,” “Dreams,” “Turpentine” and closed her main set with her signature masterpiece “The Story.”
The fans who packed and sold out the Orpheum for the solo-acoustic set sung along and hung onto her every word. She even surprised the audience with a rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” a goosebump-inducing vocal performance that took the alternative rock hit and turned it into a country-salted dirge.
Now, Carlile is coming back for another show, her third appearance in Flagstaff, on Saturday. This time, she is bringing a full band—a total of six people on the stage including a violinist and a cellist to bring a different kind of act from the stripped-down December performance.
They’re touring on the new album Bear Creek, which came out in June as Carlile’s fourth studio release. This new record is similar but somewhat of a departure from her last two outings, The Story and Give Up the Ghost. Both of those records are loaded with great tracks and reveal Carlile’s prowess as a songwriter.
Bear Creek shares this distinction as well, but also shines as a less produced, more earthbound album than the previous two. The homespun glory of the songs blends country, folk gospel and rock in a seamless way. They are songs that pay homage to great traditional music while also mixing Carlile’s own perspective and voice.
“This album is similar in that we tried to do things organically and live,” Carlile says in a phone interview from her Seattle home in July, noting that she works to try to capture live-show energy in all her recordings. “But it’s not as thought-out or labored over. There’s a lot of innocence in that record. It’s far from industry reach.”
Despite this (or because of it), Bear Creek has turned into a commercial breakout for Carlile. The album, upon its release, cracked the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, charting higher than any of her previous records.
“I was totally surprised (by the album charting so high),” Carlile says. “It wasn’t what I was expecting. But I think has everything to do with touring and taking the music to the people. And when we put an album out, they respond.”
Carlile explained how she hopes to include a number of songs from Bear Creek in her live sets, but struggles to put together a string of songs that features new work while satisfying the fans with what have become her standards.
“It used to be when we toured on the first record, we’d play the whole damn thing,” she says. “When we got to a third record, a few songs started to drop off that people want to hear. Really, my set list wants to be four hours long.”
The singer-songwriter also puts herself full-force into her performance, so she has to consider how many “vocally challenging” songs she includes. She says one of her most difficult songs to pull off is “Before It Breaks.”
For both her songs and her performances, Carlile has garnered huge attention and positive accolades from critics and from others in the music world. As part of this, Carlile has become a collaborator, featured on a song by the Indigo Girls. And they brought their talents to the song “Cannonball” on The Story, a song where the up-and-comer harmonizes with the folk duo for one of the more beautiful tracks on the record.
Carlile even worked with Elton John on the rollicking, piano-driven song “Caroline”—a standout track from Carlile’s album “Give Up the Ghost.” The song also was arranged by Paul Buckmaster, who worked on John’s arrangements during some of his work.
When asked about working with John, Carlile says, “I was totally [expletive] inconsolable I was so nervous. But to walk away from that day to know I worked with this guy who I always admired so much, who I looked up to as a kid, was really amazing.”
When it comes to collaborations, it’s something Carlile hopes she can continue. “It’s one of my favorite parts about what I want to do. It’s been the highlight. I’d love to do some duets with the country greats like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.”
Still, Carlile revels in connecting with a live audience more than anything. And she believes that connection she makes is what has helped her career evolve and expand during the last few years.
“For me, I know that I connect to totally unobstructed expression of emotion,” she says. “I think people connect mostly to that. I mean, who doesn’t want to stand in one place for an hour-and-a-half and just unleash everything they’re feeling?”
Brandi Carlile is performing Sat, Aug. 18 at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen, with special guest Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the all-ages show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $31 in advance and $35 at the door. For more info, see www.brandicarlile.com or call 556-1580.
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