The country-rock, crossover artist Brandi Carlile, whose commanding and mellifluous voice is equally suited to quiet ballads and rock anthems, has made well-known her love for, of all things, orchestras. A week ago, she performed with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra; last weekend, she and her band played two concerts Friday and Sunday with the Seattle Symphony, comparing the experience to a visit to Disneyland.
Carlile, 29, who grew up in nearby Ravensdale, seemed genuinely giddy and appreciative for the back-up she received in the form of a full orchestra, led by guest conductor Eric Garcia. Sandwiched between her two symphony shows was a “secret” performance Saturday night at Neumos that turned out to be not such a secret. The show, not very-well disguised on her official website as “The Story Guy and His Band,” was the kind of informal performance she occasionally sets up when she is in her hometown. That show, she said during her Sunday performance with the symphony, “got us thinking about all the places we’ve played. [Benaroya Hall] is one of the places we’d drive by when we were kids wondering if we’d ever get to sing here.”
Carlile is not nearly the first pop artist or rock star to play with an orchestra. Elvis did it. So did Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, and countless others including one of Carlile’s heroes, Elton John, who recorded the track “Caroline” with Carlile on her last album, “Give Up the Ghost.” The two also have in common the composer and arranger Paul Buckmaster, who famously collaborated with John on his orchestral arrangements and also arranged some of Carlile’s songs for orchestra.
Both of her symphony shows at Benaroya's big hall, where she first performed with the Seattle Symphony in 2008, easily sold out and were recorded as part of an upcoming live album. A good test of the integrity of a well-written song is its ability to stand up to the amplification of a full orchestration without sounding cheap or awkward.
While some songs flourished more than others in the translation (“Shadow on the Wall” and “Turpentine” come to mind) Carlile’s songwriting, for the most part, rose to the occasion. The collaboration worked best with less rather than more. When the entire orchestra and the full band played at full bore — Carlile’s regular band included brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth on guitar and bass respectively, Josh Neumann on cello and piano, and Allison Miller on drums — Carlile’s voice tended to get drowned out. She got more out of having the symphony behind her when the dynamic requirements of a song called for restraint.
The Seattle Symphony has sprinkled plenty of pop into its season. It played the music of Paul McCartney earlier this fall, and will perform the music of Cole Porter in March. In February, the Celtic group The Chieftains will play with the Symphony as Carlile did. Whether such a collaboration elevates the orchestra is arguable. For much of the night, it is literally and figuratively upstaged, providing embellishments and background harmony. Many measures go by without it playing at all. It is safe to say its pop concerts do not push its players to artistic heights.
As a marketing move, the collaboration fills seats and lures an audience that might not otherwise listen to the Smphony, and just possibly turns some of those people into symphony fans.
Carlile, who is among the best belters of a tune, is also a natural storyteller as country singers tend to be. She spent several minutes recounting with sincerity, humor, and humility, the time she spent with Elton John, whom she has idolized since childhood, papering her bedroom walls with his posters (they were not easy to find in the 1990s she pointed out) and dressing as John every Halloween. (“You can do a lot with that,” she said; “a lot.”)
Eventually she shared with the audience a particular discussion he instigated about a shortcoming of her generation of musicians. They do not understand what makes a song “timeless,” she said he told her. To young musicians these days, timeless simply means vintage. He tested her by throwing out names of bands, new and old, famous and obscure, most of which, to her chagrin, she did not know. Days later, he sent her a collection of albums for her to listen to, with notes attached. For her edification, he included music by Leon Russell, the Kings of Leon, and the Killers, among others.
That lesson in timelessness was brought to mind toward the end of the concert when the Hanseroth brothers started the band’s encore by singing “The Sound of Silence,” by Simon and Garfunkel, a timeless song if there ever was one. “Was that the creepiest, most beautiful thing you ever heard?” Carlile said after the two finished.
She ended the show with her rendition of the 1980s pop classic, “Forever Young,” by the German group Alphaville. Although not initially a huge hit for the group, the song has been lifted to immortality as a cover song and commercial jingle and television soundtrack standard. The symphony musicians sat out most of the encore — there was a particularly incongruous moment when the band rocked out on the Johnny Cash classic, “Folsom Prison Blues,” while the orchestra sat quietly by. Then they joined Carlile in the final number, which she played on the piano and turned into a ruminative ballad.
While she cannot be young forever, Carlile seems to understand that to be timeless is the next best thing, and that an orchestra is a good step in that direction.