GEORGE, Grant County — Brandi Carlile isn’t one to underdeliver. So a few weeks ago when the decorated folk rocker mentioned she had some “wild surprises” in store for her second annual Gorge Amphitheatre takeover, we knew it wasn’t an empty promise.
“Anybody that’s gonna come to that show is never gonna forget it,” beamed a confident Carlile.
She wasn’t lying.
Carlile let the cat (or should we say rooster) out of the bag a few days earlier, hinting at a possible cameo from fellow Seattle rock giants Soundgarden. After the two cut a pair of Soundgarden tunes together for a Record Store Day release, dubbed “A Rooster Says,” last year, it seemed inevitable that Brandigarden would one day take the stage together on their home turf.
“I’m so stoked right now,” exclaimed a visibly giddy Carlile on Saturday before Soundgarden’s surviving members joined her and the Hanseroth twins in front of a crowd that Carlile had earlier pegged at 15,000, plus an untold number of fans watching a ticketed livestream.
The heavy, creeping groove of “Black Hole Sun” felt like it was boring a hole to the bottom of the canyon big enough to make Bertha look like a toy corkscrew. Kim Thayil’s trippy guitar work hung in the air like the wildfire smoke that settled into the Columbia River Gorge, casting a weirdly ominous backdrop earlier in the day.
Carlile’s vocals oozed with attitude, igniting stoner metal crusher “Searching With My Good Eye Closed,” like lighting a mountain of dynamite with a flicked cigarette butt. As drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd cranked its plodding rhythm, she coolly sauntered around the stage in a glimmering suit like a glammed-up outlaw, her quivering drawl giving both songs a dash of Southern flavoring.
Carlile’s long proven herself more than capable of hanging with the headbangers and there are maybe only two or three living Seattle singers with the pipes and pedigree to do Cornell’s parts justice for what was the three surviving Soundgarden members’ first home-state performance together since the iconic singer’s death.
“OH MY GOD,” an off-mic Carlile mouthed in all-caps between the songs.
Years after covering “Searching” back in her bar-gig days, here’s Carlile performing the song with the hometown legends as a peer, on her stage, before a crowd that’s a bit too big to squeeze into the Paragon bar on Queen Anne. It wasn’t the only full-circle moment during a show that felt like a big family reunion.
“Keep each other safe”
A day before the show, local health officials reported that more than 160 cases of COVID-19 had been traced to people who were among the 25,000-plus attending the Watershed country music festival two weeks earlier at the Gorge. Since the three-day, party-hearty festival wrapped, there’s been a growing shift among the concert industry, driven by artists and venue operators, toward adopting vaccination requirements (or proof of a negative test) at shows.
It culminated late last week when AEG and Live Nation, the two leading concert promoters, announced it would enforce those policies at all of their venues, starting in October. For Live Nation, which controls the Gorge, it won’t take effect until after the venue’s 2021 season has closed. In the interim, several artists and festival organizers with events planned at the Gorge are instituting policies of their own. Bass Canyon electronic music festival, set for Aug. 20-22, is requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, as is Phish playing Aug. 27-29.
In an Instagram post Saturday, Carlile described waking up “to some chatter about quite a few folks being concerned about coming to the Gorge,” offering empathy and reassurances to fans around COVID-19 safety, heat and wildfire smoke at the venue. Carlile called her fan base an “overwhelmingly responsible and vaccinated group of people” and said that “everyone has also been asked to be masked tonight.”
“I trust everyone to keep each other safe and to keep you safe,” she said.
Proof of vaccination was not required for entry. Several signs around the venue stated “masks recommended” or asked unvaxxed people to mask up. Inside the gates, a fair number of fans wore them, though the vast majority did not — especially on the hillside where there was a little more room than there was at the denser, and virtually maskless, Watershed festival. Unlike Watershed (and most music festivals), the pit area in front of the stage was seated instead of standing room only. While the crowd was still tightly packed, the seating arrangement prevented fans from crushing toward the stage.
Like a family reunion
The smoke and eerily orange orb (allegedly the sun) hanging above the canyon contrasted with the breezier vibes of country-rock great Sheryl Crow, who took the stage after roots rocker Amythyst Kiah opened the second annual Echoes Through the Canyon concert. Crow’s set of softly twangy soothers offered a bit of Southern comfort amid the confluence of conditions that weren’t exactly ideal. But all was right by the time Carlile joined her for a carefree duet on Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy,” giving the crowd a welcome jolt.
Crow would later return the favor, accompanying Carlile — who recalled watching Crow perform at the Gorge during the formative Lilith Fairs of her youth — for a spellbinding “Rocket Man” cover.
Carlile’s first post-shutdown get-together with her home state fans — well, second if you count Thursday’s semisecret Neptune show for fan club members — had the familiarity of old friends picking up where they left off after time apart. The crowd knew when to hush for Carlile and Phil and Tim Hanseroth’s pristine harmonies and when to holler for those sustained power notes as predictably as the laugh track on your favorite sitcom.
“Oh my, friends, it’s good to be with you,” Carlile said, after leaning into the down-home country qualities of her voice on “Hard Way Home.”
Of course, there were new friends, too, both in Carlile’s band and in the set list. Joining her core band and three-piece string section were a pair of backup singers, a second percussionist and Carlile’s producer pal Shooter Jennings on keys, filling out the band’s already robust sound.
“Right On Time,” the first single off Carlile’s forthcoming album, was already greeted like an old favorite, the crowd howling during those long power notes. Earlier she debuted a spindly love song, “You and Me on the Rock,” with echoes of soft rock and ’60s folk.
Family reunions rarely go down without at least a little drama. But musically, Carlile’s two-hour set struck all the right chords.