Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Vanessa Carlton Concert Review

In 2015, Vanessa Carlton is much wiser than the 22-year-old we fell in love in 2002 when her debut single  “A Thousand Miles” was a Top 5 hit.

Musically, she's certainly become much more experimental as evidenced by her 2011 Album Rabbits on the Run which was equal parts indie goodness and psychedelic cool. “Who doesn’t want to do that?” opined Carlton to a sold-out Rams Head On Stage audience about getting a bit trippy/weird with her music as she gets older.

Regardless of her new adventurous sound, Carlton still possesses a tremendous voice and skillful piano playing (for this night she found herself behind a Yamaha keyboard, while joined on stage by longtime collaborator Skye Steele who played the violin while deftly creating soundscapes and loops (a la Ed Sheeran/pre-nu Motown sound) with a series of pedals.

Carlton hit the stage with a glass of wine and politely nodded to the audience and said, “Cheers” as she played the first verse and chorus of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly,” which mixed quite nicely into the first track from Rabbit on the Run’s “Carousel.”

Early on, Carlton unnecessarily apologized for her lack of practice and length of set-list as she was basically relearning everything (including her new songs) three months after giving birth to her first child. She did make a point though to describe “pregnancy brain” as a state much like being constantly stoned before tackling “Hands on Me” from Heroes & Thieves.

Much of the night’s 13 songs were spent on brand new material (her new album comes out in October). The first of which, “Take it Easy,” was musically rooted in a series of about five or six eerie loops organically created by Steele. Once the chorus hit, the song really found its stride. She followed that up with another new one, the psychedelic “Willow.” Lyrically, the song was about putting herself in her parents’ headspace when they were her age.

There was an ongoing VH-1 Storytellers vibe during the night. Before playing another new song, “House of Seven Swords,” Carlton explained that she wrote for her younger brother who is graduating college. She chuckled as she wondered aloud if she thought he liked the song, but then figured since she mentioned “tripping” in it that he probably did. Did I mention that her mom was backstage taking care of her baby? Way to narc out your little bro.

The proud older sister followed with “White Houses” a song that she said was popular with her brother’s friends but mortified him due the bridge and its frank thoughts about a young woman losing her virginity. He thought it was autobiographical.  She said, “Our relationship changed” when he recently confronted her about it and the ridicule he received about his big sis. What he didn’t know is that the line was written by her co-writer and ex, Stephen Jenkins of Third Eye Blind.

As a former ballet dancer (she completed her education at the School of American Ballet) Carlton explained that she has a soft spot for the waltz and always finds a way to record one for each album. The one she played tonight was “Tall Tales” off Rabbits. Sadly, the Rams Head prohibits dancing (it’s a dinner theater style setting), yet I hardly doubt there’d be a crowded room of couples dancing in three.

Two more new songs followed as she played “Unlock the Lock” and “River.” The latter was performed for the first time in a live setting. The uplifting song’s allegorical spin revolves around how a river is a powerful force pushing and pulling us together as a people.

Brewing a stinky healing tea on a Christmas morning at Stevie Nicks’ house was the impetus for “Hear the Bells,” another Rabbits track. To her the song was an “alarm that goes off in us to change” and to stick to natural remedies (no pills).

With only a few songs left in her current arsenal, it was time to bust out the big hit, “A Thousand Miles.” She said she started to write the song at age 17 while on break from ballet school at her parent’s house. The soon-to-be hit laid unfinished for a while until she was encouraged by a professor to complete it. Good advice. The version this night was far more subtle than the original (that piano lead is still breathtaking).

While she explained that “A Thousand Miles” was written about a valuable connection, she also noted that the stunning “I Don’t Want to be a Bride” (the centerpiece of Rabbits) which followed came from that same headspace, only 12 years later. Oddly enough, about a year after this song was recorded, she would in fact become a bride who now has a three month old little girl.

It doesn’t matter who the artist is though, everyone who plays the Rams Head always has at least one lyrical brain fart. Carlton had hers just before the bridge of “Bride” as she blurted out in frustration, “OH CRAP.” After a slight pause, a helpful crowd member fed her the line and she soldiered on. No one else seemed to mind. It was a funny, honest and real moment which made her performance even more relatable.

Before hitting the merch table to sign CDs for fans, Carlton had one more song to perform, “The Marching Line” off Rabbits. Much like the entire performance, the song was both subtle and soaring, and a magnificent ending to an enduring performance.


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