There were many extraordinary moments in Brandi Carlile’s performance Friday night at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony, but the one that will most stick with me is how the entire audience rose at the moment she started “The Joke.”
This was not a standing ovation, though she got plenty of those, but was something entirely different: a Seattle audience standing to pay respect at the beginning of a song, not the end, as if the very idea that Carlile was performing this track — a song about the disenfranchised — itself deserved honor.
That was one of many times I felt chills from Carlile’s emotional performance (rescheduled from illness-postponed December dates). Her voice Friday was perfect, and she used the hall’s acoustics to sing a cappella, and unamplified at times, backed only by her longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth, plus 15 members of the Seattle Symphony. All play again in sold-out shows Saturday and Sunday.
Between songs, Carlile spoke about her start, playing residencies at unlikely Seattle venues like the Paragon on Queen Anne, a ravioli restaurant in Ballard, or a “chowder house.” But given that this was her fifth performance with the orchestra at Benaroya (she played in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014), it appears to be her new home.
Carlile’s music — all of which is lyrically-driven — fit the room perfectly, particularly on “The Story.” On that track, as with Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” the symphony players, conducted by Jason Weinberger, added just the right nuance and flourish.
Benaroya may be a world away from Carlile’s childhood bedroom in Ravensdale, Washington, but by playing two Elton John songs — “Madman Across the Water” and “Sixty Years On” — she brought us back to her youth. She told me once that John was her greatest influence when she was a teen, and at Friday’s show she said Paul Buckmaster, John’s arranger, had informed the very idea that she might play with symphony musicians.
“This is one of the most beautiful symphony halls in the country,” Carlile said. “It may sound great out there, but you have no idea how great it sounds up here.”
It might have seemed predictable that she would close with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (she’d released a live version with the Seattle Symphony in 2011), but it was nonetheless magical. I could see people in the audience crying. That was a sign of how much Carlile owned the room, owned this song for the night, and owned the crowd on this special night.
Hallelujah to that.