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Brandi Carlile at Plush

One of our travel writers was on assignment recently up in the Great Northwest and returned to report that he had heard tell of a Sireen that hailed from the woods somewhere out Seattle way. This Sireen (not a misspelling but rather a term lifted from the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou) had been rumored to melt a person's heart just by belting out a tune. In "Oh Brother" the Sireens were nameless alluring vixens with transfixing songs and hypnotizing voices that washed the fellas right off their feet. The Seattle Sireen went by the name of Brandi Carlile and our man had talked to more than one Homeresque affected mariner who'd come dangerously close to losing his vessel against the proverbial rocks while too mesmerized by the effects of her voice to tend to his tiller. It was a voice, he said, that the natives described as "haunting" and "bell clear". Brandi and her band had apparently been playing hundreds of shows around the Northwest for the last couple years and developed quite a regional following. Recently, the right people had been clued in and taken notice and Brandi was getting ready to try her hand at wrecking ships on a national scale. 

Now it's not unusual to hear about promising and upcoming musicians who fight their way to the surface in places other than Tucson and, especially not in music rich Seattle, but we've learned not to hold our breath for many of them to come rolling through this town. At least not until they are on the downside of their careers firmly entrenched in the "where are they now" file. As a result, we didn't pay all that much attention to our crowing journeyman and might have forgotten Brandi's name altogether once he had left the bar if we hadn't picked up a Tucson Weekly as we took our own leave. After returning to the Goliard offices however, we were paging through the coming attractions and happened to notice that someone called Brandi Carlile was coming to play right here in the Old Pueblo. A small paragraph on page 47 with no picture to accompany said she was scheduled to appear that very weekend at a place called Plush. 
     "Where and what in the Hell is Plush?" asked the photog who drew the assignment.
     "Uh I think it's that place on the corner of Fourth and Sixth that used to be called the Sweet Pepper Cafe or some such. The Sandpiper? Suite 102? The Soul Kitchen? Something like that. Anyway, it was a crappy place to see a show, I remember that much. Folks like Rob Paulus and Anna Warr used to play there once in awhile back in the day. A little stage all crammed over in a corner. No place to sit or stand. Unless they've done some major renovating, they have no business booking big time acts." 
     "This chick better be good then," the photog said.

Well, we went to the show and can report that the chick is good alright. At least performing live she is. And Plush isn't that crappy a place to take in a gig anymore either. Maybe the winds of change are blowing through town and we haven't had our sails unfurled long enough lately to notice.

Given that we clearly didn't know what to expect when we took our leave of a staff BBQ that Saturday to head down to Fourth Ave, we weren't all that worried about arriving over an hour after the 9:30 starting time. We can cite several reasons for our tardiness with the main one being that we've grown tired over the years of racing to get to some performance on time only to stand in frustrating anticipation for hours amongst the sweating masses while a group of B grade has-beens proceed to get totally hammered backstage.  By the time they finally come stumbling out in the wee hours of the morning just before the bar closes just to belch out a shortened, whiskey soaked set, you're so annoyed that you wouldn't have enjoyed the music even if it was good. We should note that we've also been burned a time or two by this new tactic of showing up late, most recently by Todd Snider who was apparently trying to get out of Flagstaff as fast as he could to beat a snowstorm and started his set right on time. This caused us to miss all but the encore of a show we'd driven five hours to see. While Todd was playing our favorites, we had been sitting right across the street in some dive bar drinking cheap beer and talking in excited anticipation about Todd and his work.

Since a couple warm up acts were promised for Miss Carlile, we assumed we were safe in this case and, in the event that Brandi, Plush or the combination thereof was, for some reason, painful to behold, we figured hedging our bets and splitting the difference made sense. We might as well admit also that the one of us scheduled to do the driving that night was having a pretty good time at the BBQ chatting with a debutante from next door and the other was preoccupied about running into a former flame who was known to frequent Plush and had dumped him unceremoniously a week earlier by e-mail so he may have been dragging his feet a bit. Anyway, none of this is either here nor there and we were pleasantly surprised when we finally did make it through the front doors and found that Plush was a pretty cool scene. Not only had Brandi not begun to play yet, but one of the warm up acts was still getting set up himself. No harm done and no sign of e-mailing exes anywhere so we grabbed a couple pints of Sierra Nevada and put our backs against a wall to enjoy the sights the night had to offer.

The space itself had been completely remodeled since our last visit and instead of a restaurant with a bar crammed off to one side, it now seems to be almost a full fledged performance venue. We didn't notice any food being served anywhere and a couple different full service bars are now strategically placed, one in and one outside of the performance area. There is also outdoor seating and some split level action going on in the room with the stage that make it a pretty comfortable space to move around in. Of course Brandi isn't drawing the crowds here in the desert that she most likely will if she pays us another visit so there was more room to maneuver than there probably is at some of the shows. Judging from the coming attractions board, the Plush folks are doing what they can to bring some pretty decent bands to town.

The enjoyment quotient of our evening was squelched temporarily however when the last warm up act, whose name we didn't catch at the time but later found out was a guy called Bradford Trojan, took forever to come on, instead futzing and putzing around on the stage as if he was overseeing the launch of the space shuttle instead of simply playing a one man gig with a guitar. Despite appearing to be a scrawny Cat Stevens, (sorry Yusef Islam), type figure, when he finally decided to give a crack at singing, he proceeded to behave more like a cross between Ali G. and Phoebe from Friends trying out some original material at the Central Perk. His first song, a silly ditty during which he felt the need to yell "Cats, Cats, Cats, Cats," into the mic over and over was sub par and things proceeded downhill from there. A woman next to us who had probably read the blurb in the Weekly just like we had that predicted Brandi was going to be a force in country music one day and had subsequently taken the paper's advice by driving in from the sticks to pay her money in order to catch the singer before she took off, was quite vocal about how bad Bradford was. As he warbled on with inane banter between songs asking the crowd self aggrandizing questions like "How many more of my songs do you want to hear?" she would shout out "None! None more!" Brad didn't seem like a bad guy necessarily and certainly didn't lack in enthusiasm but he was probably miscast warming up for a budding young star that both Rolling Stone and Interview magazines have recently dubbed as an "artist to watch." Mr. Trojan would be something more like "an artist to endure who will eventually end up entertaining children at birthday parties." Finally, somewhere around midnight, Bradford stopped his caterwauling and got off the stage to applause that could only be categorized as lukewarm even though many were most likely cheering his mere departure. At that point, a girl who had been standing near us and whom we had been admiring out of the corner of our eye due to the fact that she was quite fetching and statuesque (in that healthy Northwest sort of way that you don't find as often around here) suddenly materialized into the girl we'd paid five dollars to see and trotted up under the lights.

Flanked by identical twin guitar players Tim and Phil Hanseroth, the opening riffs seemed a promise of good things to come and we began moving towards the stage even before Brandi's voice came ripping out into the night. When it did, we stopped in our tracks and could have sworn that a chill ran up and then back down the spine. The knees even felt a bit shaky. Her voice had been described as "bell clear" and it definitely was that. The haunting aspect however came through in that it caused melancholy to wash over you when she wasn't even singing anything all that sad or when you didn't really know what the song was about. Her self penned tunes, which we haven't had a chance to listen to on disc yet, seemed tight and succinct performed live, and were projected across the room in a heartfelt, confident way by a band that obviously knew each other well. As we crowded in for a closer look, we got the feeling that we were in the presence of talented seasoned professionals as opposed to relative unknown youngsters. Another thing that was immediately evident was that Miss Carlile, at age 23, is already, in a word, undeniably real. She's got realness to spare in fact and since we hadn't heard her before in any form, we regretted not being able to anticipate the sentiments of the lyrics or sing along on this first go round but there is little doubt that we will be fully on board in the future. Normally we're not quite as gushing as all this but trust the Goliard on this one. No matter what your musical tastes, this young lady is damn good!

 And those twins are some cool cats as well, mixing sort of a tough skinhead first impression with gentle and kind auras and a barefoot slashing style that, along with drummer Jason Maybell and Brandi herself, (who is clearly no slouch on the strings) proved repeatedly throughout the set that they were four musicians who could kick it up a notch on a moment's notice. And when Brandi dropped easily into ballad mode during the encore, letting her amazing voice do most of the work, we'll continue with the nautical theme and say that if we had been asked to navigate even unchallenging waters at that point, our humble craft would likely have gone yawling right into the sea cliffs. If you've ever been lost out at sea in the fog and longing to hear the unmistakable ringing of a directional buoy that will guide your way home and if you remember the emotion you felt when you finally did hear it's crystal clear, unmistakable sound, then you've experienced something a lot like Brandi Carlile's voice.

One of us talked to her briefly after the show and mentioned reading about her recently in a Seattle Times article and said that he was excited he had gotten the chance to catch her out on the road. She said thanks, smiled sweetly and remembered to him that when she read that particular article in the newspaper it had made her cry. Just judging by the brief exposure to Miss Carlile we've had so far, we predict that Brandi, who it is abundantly clear, has both feet planted firmly on the ground, will be causing her share of tears to flow in the coming years. Not to mention being the Sireen behind all sorts of different shipwrecks.

Photos purloined from BrandiCarlile.net and KELLY KLEIN, Seattle Times
Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.