Originally written for NoDepression.com
We’re in the middle of the mountains, far from town. This is the domain of wild animals, dust and jutting monolithic rocks. There’s a breeze and clouds and maybe three visible stars, but who’s looking up? Brandi Carlile is alone on the stage down there, at the bottom of the amphitheater. It’s a quite-dark night and a single spotlight separates her from us. A single spotlight and an incredible gift which has transported her, over the past few years, from her Maple Valley, Wash., barn-home to center stage at one of the finest outdoor venues in the US, if not the world.
It’s a moment, is all it is, though it’s lasted about an hour and a half. It’s hard to miss that fact in the midst of these mountains – anything you can do is just a blip in time. You may as well make it count, make it beautiful, make it memorable.
Carlile doesn’t have a problem with that. Right now she’s making her way through her version of Jeff Buckley’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” If you ask me, she’s one of maybe three singers left in the world who has any business singing this song. (The other two would be k.d. lang and Leonard Cohen.)
Indeed, this song’s difficult and musical melody can stretch a voice to its farthest reaches. It has a tendency to make big-voiced singers think simply singing the hell out of a song is enough. It’s not. Cranking your big voice up to 11 and letting it rip through such a richly nuanced, roller-coaster-of-emotions song as “Hallelujah” does not cut it. Doing such a thing would be like screaming an entire conversation. It’s ineffective and annoying and obnoxious, but that’s how most people approach this song. Actually, that’s how most people with voices the size of Brandi Carlile’s approach singing anything at all.
Lucky for us, that’s not how she sings, and that is why she’s here on this stage, in the middle of a dark night, with a spotlight on her and a pin you can hear dropping at the top of the hill.
All night, she’s been gushing about the fact that she’s found herself here. Like the last several years haven’t happened, and she just woke up at 9am this morning in a bus at the top of this hill, with a view like this – the breathtaking wingspan of the Rocky Mountains. You can’t fault her for that sense. No doubt it’s been a whirlwind of unimaginable gifts. When you grow up in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, you can’t really picture yourself being whisked off to a Vegas studio to collaborate with Elton John. Can’t really imagine you’ll find yourself touring Europe with a beloved band of your best friends. She was talking earlier about being an opening act, playing when it’s still light out and feeling the incredible surge of being asked to sing with the headliner. In this case, it was Sheryl Crow who welcomed her onto this very Red Rocks stage for one song. That was when she got to feel what it’s like to be here, in the middle of a dark night, carrying 10,000 people’s imaginations with no tool other than the way her voice tugs on a melody.
That was then, though; that was just a tease. Time has passed. You can see in the way she juts her chin and scoots her feet that exactly how that time has passed has affected her viscerally. It’s probably only now, the breath between notes when she can step away from the mic for a half-second and just inhale, that it’s all hitting her consciousness.
I’m in a special place witnessing this moment. And I do feel like a witness. I don’t feel like I’m watching a rock star play a show right now. I don’t really know this person, but I know the dream. I know the sitting alone in your room and picking through those six strings, trying to wrest an idea into being. I know the frustration of the chords not matching exactly what’s happening in your brain. The taking it to someone else who hears the same way you do, having them pop on a capo and deliver it exactly right. The way that getting it right connects two people. I know the working on a melody across a couch in the living room. The playing dark bars and feeling like you’ve just touched glory with that half-second note even if only 20 people are there to hear it.
As a critic, I’ve come to feel jaded about music. So much of it sounds the same. So much of it misses the point. I see bands on stages and more often than not, feel about as much excitement as I feel about the sidewalk underneath my feet when I’m walking from my house to the car. Sometimes, this makes me sad. I see people’s faces fold when they ask me about their favorite band and I respond with an “eh.” I get the sense of saturation and wonder if I’ll feel the fire again. We’re an old married couple, music and me. There’s a lifetime of love but sometimes I can’t really even explain what’s so great about it. Sometimes I’m not sure it’s great at all.
Earlier this night, I sat in a parking lot surrounded by a breed of individual I’ve come to refer to as “superfans.” I commented on the fact that their adoration of Brandi Carlile is no different from a 9-year-old’s freakish affection for the latest boy band. It’s just a grown-up version. All the car doors open, lazing on chairs, the music of the band we’re here to see blasting from speakers. Beer. Cornhole. People with similar hairdos, hats, and clothing to the artist they’ve paid money to see. Like there’s a Brandi Carlile catalog and everyone here has ordered from it.
It’s been years since I felt that way about music. I haven’t been a superfan of anyone since I started forging a career as a songwriter myself. The years of playing shit gigs and hanging out with artists helped me understand the glamour is a myth. I can’t force myself into a superfan’s clothes with all my might. This makes me sad sometimes too. I’d like to feel that splendor, that oh-my-god-this-artist-is-the-most-amazing-person-on-the-planet. But I’ve met too many of my heroes. I’ve seen too much. The thing about life in general is the less you know, the more you appreciate. The trick is knowing you know less than you think you know, so there’s still room for loving something.
Sometimes I can see that room and it rips me wide open in the good way. Wide open like the spaces between these mountains.
Now and then, there are moments when I appreciate the way my relationship with music has changed. I realize I no longer have a reverence for the artist. But, when I least expect it, the music itself – when it’s allowed to realize its full potential – that is the thing which blows my mind. Which knocks me onto my feet. It can feel like all this time I’ve been standing in front of a mountain and didn’t even notice because I was looking straight ahead, thinking it was a wall. Then someone with a voice like that reminds me to look up and suddenly I realize how much potential is right there.
Thanks to my role for years as a roots music reporter in Carlile’s hometown, I’ve seen the woman play too many shows to count. I think I’ve probably written more words about her than most other artists in the genre.
But right now I don’t care about any of what I’ve just written. I don’t even think about it, don’t even notice. It doesn’t matter. Because that voice which is at once so subtle and commanding is delivering one of the truest love song lines in any love song ever – “Love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a lonesome ‘hallelujah'”. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a bit of poetry which once poured from her pen. I trust this song still went through that whole process I noted above – the trying it out, the frustration, the getting it wrong and then getting it right. I’ve seen her sing it before, watched her explore in other venues where to growl and where to come clear, when to keep it in her chest and when to let it whine and warble out through her delicate and artfully imperfect falsetto.
She’s unleashed however many songs in the past 90 minutes – those she’s been playing for years and others which came from an album I thought fell short of her promise. But that was the critic talking. That was the part of my mind which is required to analyse and opine. Here on this hill, between those two giant rocks I couldn’t even begin to climb, I get to hear music the way it was meant to be made. She’s down there making it count, making it matter, proving the years which have compelled her to this place and time have not gone unlearned.
When she’s done and the place has cleared, my partner and I stand on the exit ramp and watch the moment pass. A skunk climbs the stairs toward the arena. A family of raccoons. Something which looks to me like a mountain lion appears, making its way toward the stage. As the night folds in on itself, these rocks belong to the animals again. But the music still rings in my ears.
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