Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My new obsessions: Katie and Brandi

"You just seemed so confident," Dad said to Mom, angry and tired after realizing she was leading us to a cafe far away from our rental SUV. The Fodor's recommended bistro we'd parked in front of was closed.

"I didn't know East Alameda Street was so far from West Alameda Street," she defended herself as we entered Old Town Santa Fe.

"What's today's date?" I asked after reading "Brandi Carlile Oct. 15" on the front of the Lensic Theatre across the street.

An hour later I made my way up the balcony of the art deco Southwestern theater, once called the most splendid theater in the West, still wearing my hiking boots and puffy vest from a day of hiking. I tried not to think about my windblown hair and rosy cheeks among the knee-high boots and smoky eyes. I am so glad I got over my unkempt appearance and bought a ticket at the door -- Up there with Patty Griffin in Charleston and The GoTan Project in the Palau de Musica in Barcelona, it was a surreal night that I didn't want to end.

The stage was a dreamy night sky with a paper lantern moon and branches, like a set for an Anthropologie catalog. A singer I'd never heard of, Katie Herzig, opened the show. I resisted the urge to hate her tall, skinny blond self and cute cowgirl boots before she opened her mouth and played her guitar. She started with the whimsical and catchy Apple Tree. Katie's girlish voice and quirky indie songs made me think of Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley with an earthy Patty Griffin streak and a bit of Madeleine Peyroux jazz in her husky tone. Halfway through her set I didn't think Brandi Carlile could match her in my book. (You can download her acoustic tracks performed with her cell0 and ukele-playing band mates free at like I did.)

"I don't know if it's such a good thing," Herzig said about her niece and nephew knowing the words to her songs better than she does. "My nephew asked if this next song was about him. I had to explain that it wasn't." She said now he asks "Can we play Aunt Katie's song about her relationship issues?" from his car seat. No wonder he likes that song, Hologram, because Herzig really rocks it. It's my favorite too.

When Brandi Carlile took the stage it all escalated to a new level. She started out standing in a circle with her band, waling out an a capella number in her auditorium-commanding, country voice while the guys harmonized in falsetto. She blew us all away and didn't stop for nearly two hours. I feared her vocal chords would go out.

A friend who shares appreciates the sort of music I do (perhaps the only one) introduced me to Carlile two years ago after a rough summer when I looked for solace in music. I got an abbreviated copy of her album "The Story," but after a year I was burnt out on the six tracks. I have a new respect for her after that concert -- live performance is where she shines, baring everything in her powerful, emotive voice. The leggy singer/songwriter with shoulder-length mahogany waves spoke in a voice as deep and twangy as she sings. On stage she's flawless and funny to boot. She's no pop star but a female Johnny Cash, that is if he had a startling range and real guitar skills. She and her band even unplugged their instruments and stepped in front of their microphones to perform a song or two in the raw.

Carlile recalled singing back up for an Elvis impersonator at 15 and mentioned her country singer mother. "I grew up in the Grand Ole Opry culture," the Washington state singer said. "My aunt was a saloon-style, honky tonk piano player, but my real obsession was Elton John. I dressed up as him every year for Halloween." (Elton performs a duet on her new release.) The audience ate up her stage charisma, and she played five encore songs, one which compelled the entire theater to stand and stomp and clap along. Carlile's upbringing might be a world away from my experiences, but somehow her music makes me feel something. And that's the kind I like. She released a new CD this month, "Give up the Ghost," and I'm downloading it on iTunes now.

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