“It is impossible for me to describe what this feels like right now,” Brandi Carlile said, addressing the crowd for the first time, three songs into her sold-out show at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. Then the singer, performing what might have been the largest, or at least the most high-profile, headlining set of her 20-some-odd-year career, broke down in tears before dedicating her next song — “The Story” — to the crowd. “There is not a nerdy little outcast with a guitar in the world that doesn’t dream of what I’m seeing right now.”
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Carlile’s emotional greeting was just one of several unforgettable moments at her MSG debut, which featured a career-spanning selection of signature songs, highlights from her already-classic 2018 album By the Way, I Forgive You, a feel-good duet with opening act Mavis Staples, and, not least, a surprise mini-set from the Highwomen (minus Maren Morris, who “couldn’t be here but sent us booze,” according to Carlile).
Carlile’s show was yet one more icing-on-the-cake achievement for the 38-year-old singer-songwriter, who over the past 18 months has catapulted from longtime road-warrior fan favorite to Grammy-winning superstar. Carlile made sure to take stock of the evening throughout, repeatedly kissing the floor of the MSG stage before positing, just before her stunning show-closer “Party of One,” that she was perhaps about to be wrapping up “the longest show [she’s] ever played.”
The momentous occasion had Carlile in a particularly reflective mood, sharing stories about her van getting robbed the first time she and the Hanseroth twins played New York, sharing her take on the three greatest songs of all-time (“Hallelujah,” “I Will Always Love You” and “A Case of You”), and detailing the centrality of Joni Mitchell to her relationship with her wife Catherine, who was in the crowd (“I don’t think this can continue,” Catherine told Carlile, who was slow to love Blue, early on in their relationship, “if you cannot learn to understand Joni Mitchell.”)
Carlile’s two-hour performance mostly stuck to the immaculately-crafted set she’s developed around By the Way, I Forgive You, which leaps from the hyper-personal vulnerability of songs like “The Mother” to communal fist-pumping anthems like 2009’s “Pride and Joy” while tracing the breadth of her musical influences via covers by Mitchell (a spellbinding “A Case of You”) and Led Zeppelin (“Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”).
“I feel like Meat Loaf when I sing that song,” she said after “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” “And I’m here for it, because when you feel as dramatic as I feel tonight, why hide it?”
But as much as Carlile’s show traced the slow arc of her career, it also shone a spotlight on the star-making moment she’s still very much in the midst of forging. Never was this more apparent than when the singer brought out the Highwomen to booming applause.
Three-quarters of the Highwomen kicked off their mini-set with their self-titled theme song, joined by Mavis Staples (someone who used to march alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a member of the Staple Singers in the Sixties), who delivered a staggering version of Yola’s “Freedom Rider” verse. The group then performed “If She Ever Leaves Me” and “Redesigning Women,” both of which were received with an energy and adoration reserved only for a group that’s managed to capture the cultural zeitgeist as precisely as the Highwomen have of late.
Apart from her slew of covers, Carlile’s show repeatedly highlighted her own forebears, as evidenced by the spirited opening set from Staples. Despite turning 80 earlier this summer, Staples’ vital show resists all nostalgia, devoid of her biggest hits and almost entirely focused on her potent, politically-grounded new album We Get By. Staples’ set, as per usual, was anchored in her message of joyful resistance and peaceful bridge-building. “It’s nice to be nice,” as she put it herself.
It’s a message Carlile has always carried close as a songwriter, artist, and activist, a message she reinforced when she invited Staples back for a duet on “Friendship,” an ode to kind companionship written by Mavis’ father Pops Staples. Staples and Carlile smiled as they sang that song to each other, amazed, perhaps, by how their humble folk songs of grace and compassion had taken over the biggest stage in pop music.