GEORGE, Grant County — It’s highly probable that on Saturday night, Brandi Carlile became the first person who once slept in a U-Haul outside the Gorge Amphitheatre, only to return years later as a headliner.
The Grammy-slaying folk-rock star and the Hanseroth twins were full-bore into a jubilant success-toasting birthday set when Carlile took one of her first trips down memory lane. Roughly 15 years ago, Carlile was tapped as a fill-in act on a beer garden side stage after another artist got sick. The catch was she had to rent her own PA system — and that U-Haul, which became home for a night, to lug all the gear. The gig cost her $1,500, but it sounds like it was worth it. Apparently, some guy named Dave Matthews — who gave Carlile her first slot on the Gorge main stage a decade later — bought a copy of her demo that night.
“I’m playing the Gorge, I’m playing the Gorge!” she giddily exclaimed after a forceful run through “The Story” Saturday. “That’s what’s going on in my head right now.”
It was one of several pinch-me moments from the endearingly earnest rural King County star who’s too cool to play it cool. Though she’d been on the Gorge’s big stage before, Saturday’s milestone Echoes Through the Canyon concert was her first as the top draw, placing her in elite company with the likes of Matthews, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden as Seattle artists to lead non-festival headlining gigs at the landmark Washington venue.
The mammoth birthday bash felt like the celebratory culmination of her recent hot streak, chiefly the three Grammys she picked up on the strength of her career best “By the Way, I Forgive You” LP. Carlile, who had formative Lilith Fair experiences at the Gorge, intentionally tapped two other strong women in country great Emmylou Harris and Northwest folk-inflected indie-rock favorite Neko Case for support — an all-star lineup making the Gorge’s season-opener one of this summer’s most anticipated shows.
As the crowd was still filing in, Carlile came out to thank everyone for attending her not-so-little birthday fete and recall how she’d been coming to the Gorge since she was 8 years old.
“I’m up here tonight, but my heart is on the lawn,” Carlile said before introducing Case, who eased into her mood-setting performance like the haze over the ridge across the canyon with a run of songs off last year’s superb “Hell-On.” All three artists were well suited for the Gorge’s dusty, breathtaking environs, but none more so than Harris. The Country Music Hall of Famer’s heavy-hearted slow songs, like the accordion-laced “Evangeline,” were as expansive as the sun-baked landscape’s views, winding like the Columbia River behind her. Harris was at her most commanding with swelling full-band tunes like “Goin’ Back to Harlan,” — a lyrical fiddle solo seemingly singing the descending sun to sleep — and a walk-off “Abraham, Martin and John” that brought even the hillside loungers to their feet for a long (and deserved) standing ovation.
But the birthday girl couldn’t be outdone in her first big post-Grammys home-state show (besides an intimate fan-club gig Thursday at the Neptune) that was as joyous as a Mariners World Series parade, if a tad more probable. The sprawling stage and sea of fans that Carlile pegged as 16,000 strong only amplified her range of talents that got her this far.
There was Carlile the tender folkie on live staple “The Eye,” her soaring three-part harmonies with longtime bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth; Carlile the hard-rockin’ frontwoman during their seismic take on Led Zeppelin’s version of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”; and Carlile the barnstorming roots rocker snarling on a menacing “Raise Hell.”
Still, it’s her intentional emotional shift away from what she’s termed a more “beer garden” songwriting style that earned Carlile her new level of acclaim with “By the Way, I Forgive You” and its powerful single “The Joke.” New leaf turned, the Americana ace is also proving herself one of contemporary pop music’s great balladeers. Ditching her guitar for a powerhouse cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You,” Carlile ripped off vibrato-soaked runs that could go toe to toe with any of this decade’s Top 40 bombshell vocalists. Riveting piano-and-strings number “Party of One,” the new record’s vulnerable zenith, quite literally echoed through the canyon during an encore that also included a fun-loving John Denver medley Carlile and the twins seemed to add on the fly, with the Hanseroths harmonizing like a couple of Beatles on a Georgia porch swing with the “Sunshine on My Shoulders” portion.
Earlier, Harris returned for a sterling duet on Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” a nod to Carlile’s Lilith Fair coming of age, that brought Carlile to her knees. “I need to recover from that for a moment,” she said. Almost on cue, the crowd serenaded her with “Happy Birthday.”
In an interview shortly after the show was announced, Carlile openly daydreamed about the possibilities her first Gorge headliner could lead to.
“It’d be so cool if it really went well and it got to be an annual thing,” she said. “Or if it ever turned into an annual weekend where I did two shows or something, I would try to bill it out to get all those side stages fired up and get local girls on the stages, and try to relieve my Lilith Fair glory years.”
Whatever the future holds, Carlile’s big dreams don’t feel out of reach these days.
1. Hold Out Your Hand
2. Wherever is Your Heart
3. Hard Way Home
4. The Story
5. The Eye
6. Raise Hell
7. Fulton County Jane Doe
8. The Joke
9. Case of You (Joni Mitchell Cover)
10. Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You (Led Zeppelin cover)
11. The Mother
12. Whatever You Do
13. Pride and Joy
14. Angel (Sarah McLachlan cover with Emmylou Harris)
15. We Will Rock You (Queen cover)
16. Mainstream Kid
17. Every Time I Hear That Song
18. Take Me Home, Country Roads / Rocky Mountain High / Sunshine on My Shoulders (John Denver medley)
19. Party of One
20. Calling All Angels (Jane Siberry cover with Carlile’s sister Tiffany Hanseroth)