Carlton’s haunting piano arpeggios and Steele’s layers of strings made for otherworldly performances.
3rd & Lindsley, Nashville
“Let’s get the elephant to exit the room,” said Vanessa Carlton sheepishly Sunday night at the beginning of her set. The elephant Carlton is referring to is, of course, her hit “A Thousand Miles.” Though, a risky gambit playing the hit single at the start of the show, at this point in her career, Carlton has acquired a decent-sized, dedicated fan base that will overlook one song when others won’t. For other artists, making a move like this would likely be disastrous, but Carlton has evolved into such a stellar songwriter that having the rest of the set to look forward to makes “A Thousand Miles” seem almost forgettable.
Last time Carlton was in town, she recorded Liberman Live. For that show, in addition to violinist Skye Steel, she brought out the Watson Twins, Adam Landry, and husband John McCauley. While tonight’s show featured no special guests, the performance this time around was somehow able to outdo the last one. Carlton and Steele were both in top form, with Steele also looping Carlton’s vocals through a second microphone to create a lush, rich atmosphere. (The show was also streamed live on the radio for local Nashville station Lightning 100, and Carlton would also address listeners, keeping them abreast of her stage setup.)
The first part of Carlton’s set included fan favorites such as “Carousel” and “White Houses.” While the performances were spot on, the show itself didn’t fully begin until the first Liberman song was played. From “Take It Easy” onward, Carlton and Steele’s system of loops, samples, and tracks create a dreamy haze into which the audience was happily able to get lost. On songs such as “Blue Pool,” Carlton’s haunting piano arpeggios and Steele’s layers of strings made for otherworldly performances. Steele in particular, with his loop set up and improvisational arrangement, helped elevate the show to another level. Some of the most stunning parts of the night were the lush one-man string sections that Steele created by manipulating his violin with various pedals.
Carlton also busted out the fan favorite “I Don’t Want to Be a Bride.” At the end of the song, where there would normally be a children’s choir on the album recording, Steele looped Carlton’s live vocals to create a mini choir on the spot. Carlton then stood up, walked to the front of the stage, and got the audience to clap along. One concertgoer next to me described this moment as “a religious experience.”
Following that song, Carlton invited opener Tristen on stage for a performance of Janis Joplin’s classic “Mercedes Benz.” The result was both charming and comical, with the two ladies harmonizing beautifully together, Steele’s violin their only instrumental accompaniment.
Another highlight of the night was when Carlton played a new song titled “Love Is an Art,” hinting at working on a new album. The song started with Steele playing a low synth, and then Carlton coming in with a simple piano part. Once she had the audience resigned to thinking the song was going to be simple, she suddenly broke out into intricate-sounding arpeggios. It would seem as if “Blue Pool” might’ve been a glorious jumping off point.
Throughout the night, Carlton herself was also very charismatic and conversational. On “Fair Weather Friend,” she gently joked about how if a significant other says they’re going to be in one city but they’re in another, it usually isn’t a good sign. She called “River” the only song she could sing to get her baby to stop crying.
At this point in Carlton’s development, it would be incredibly unfair for anyone to say she’s channeling other well-known pianist-songwriters such as Regina Spektor or Tori Amos. Rather, Carlton has comfortably stepped into her own identity, not just a songwriter, but also a performer with a force to be reckoned with. Don’t miss out if she’s stopping by your neighborhood. | Michael Cheng
A Thousand Miles
Fair Weather Friend
Take It Easy
Nothing Where Something Used to Be
I Don’t Want to Be a Bride
Mercedes Benz (w/Tristen)
Love Is an Art