GEORGE, Grant County — Brandi Carlile has long discussed the impact Lilith Fair had on her, seeing the groundbreaking all-women festival as a teenager from the lawn at Gorge Amphitheatre, where the roving fest launched in 1997. Now an annual Gorge headliner herself, Carlile reminded the 18,000 fans who came to see her Saturday at the landmark Washington venue that those ethos and ideals course through everything she does 25 years later.
That much was as clear as the big bright moon that hung over the Gorge as Carlile was joined on stage by Lilith founder Sarah McLachlan, the decorated singer-songwriter whose performance earlier in the night was a nostalgic, tear-jerking catharsis for fractured times.
Carlile and her superb nine-piece band already had rumbled and crooned through most of her most beloved tunes when, after the encore break, the ’90s undisputed sad-song queen quietly took a seat at the piano. With a clear mutual admiration, the A-list duet partners floated through McLachlan’s “Do What You Have to Do” — a Carlile favorite she begged her folk-pop hero to sing with her — and “Angel.” McLachlan’s signature tune, the weepy piano ballad (as heard on those infamous fundraising commercials) has generated a zillion dollars to fight animal abuse and even more breakup tears. But as their radiant voices were suspended in the cool night air, it felt more like the rapturous climax of a midnight church service that cleansed 18,000 souls at once.
“You know what this looks like right now?” Carlile beamed, calling the show’s opening act, Lucius, and special guest Celisse to the stage to join them in Highwomen single “Crowded Table.” “Kinda like Lilith Fair.”
The third edition of Carlile’s Echoes Through the Canyon concerts, which has featured first-generation Lilith alums every year, arrived more than eight months after the release of Carlile’s critically acclaimed “In These Silent Days.” But Saturday’s show marked the beginning of her first proper touring in support of the album that saw the Washington folk rocker take another big creative leap forward.
Carlile and her already dialed-in band, featuring Shooter Jennings on piano and in-demand Seattle drummer Matt Chamberlain, spent two hours and 10 minutes howling at that big ol’ moon, playing some of her newer songs live for the first time and dusting off a few old favorites.
Making their live debut amid a set list Carlile described as her longest ever, “Mama Werewolf” gently thumped with precision. With Lucius lending added vocal might, “Sinners, Saints and Fools” — a dramatic outlaw rocker made for the Gorge’s dusty, expansive surroundings — exploded into an instrumental stampede, kick-started by a screeching cyclone of strings and Tim Hanseroth’s saddled-up Southern rock riffs. “Rock ‘n’ roll!” Carlile exclaimed afterward with a slightly winded laugh. “I need to go see a chiropractor tomorrow.”
For all the stunning vocal moments we’ve come to expect from a Brandi Carlile show (the Lucius-led, power-rocking cover of i-Ten’s “Alone,” a song Heart later made a No. 1 hit, was a fun, ’80s-tastic surprise), the band’s string quartet was the low-key MVP of the night. Anchored by her longtime cellist/neighbor/brother-in-law Josh Neumann, the string section has long augmented Carlile and the Hanseroth twins‘ compositions with aplomb. But whether there was something in the Eastern Washington air or a little extra in Neumann and Co.’s steady bows, the foursome was on fire last night.
Even with Carlile’s star-surfing croon as she twirled around the stage, it was the strings that shone brightest and did the heaviest lifting on a zero-gravity cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which spilled over into Radiohead’s “Creep.” Early on, they were the air under the wings of “The Story,” the Carlile classic that still sounds triumphant alongside her more recent signature tunes like “The Joke,” on which Carlile was loose yet commanding.
It’s been several years since that bombshell Grammys performance won her a new legion of fans, and while the rest of us might be used to seeing Carlile on the industry’s biggest stages, the Washington folk rocker still seems in disbelief every time she plays the Gorge — the venue she reverentially described as McLachlan’s house, alluding to those early Lilith Fair days. But just three years into her nascent Echoes Through the Canyon tradition, it already feels like Carlile’s name is on the deed.