A Not So Ordinary Day With Vanessa Carlton

Becca Damante ’17
Arts Editor

I have to admit, if you’re a female singer-songwriter around the age of 35 and you play the piano, I have high expectations for you. Some of my favorite concerts over the last few years have been by the likes of Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Rachel Platten and Elizabeth and the Catapult, who have all amazed me with their high-energy performances, amusing banter and musical talent.  Last Friday night, I had the chance to see Vanessa Carlton play at Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, where she met some of my expctations.

Carlton started the show with “Carousel,” a fan-favorite from her 2011 record “Rabbits on the Run.” From the moment she took to her keyboard, which had a collection of candles on it and was laid out on a tapestry rug, Carlton was in the zone. During this song, and for the remainder of the concert, she looked as though she was concentrating deeply. She often looked down at her piano and over to her violinist without ever looking at the audience; this sometimes made me wish for a deeper connection to her as a performer.

Though Carlton may not have connected to the crowd with her performance, she certainly created a bond with the audience through the stories she told. Two songs into her set, she talked about “White Houses,” which garnered squeals from a few women sitting next to me. While the song’s bridge, written 11 years ago, seems to be about a girl losing her virginity, Carlton joked that she recently reassured her brother by telling him she didn’t write the bridge. She told the audience: “The amount of relief that came over this man’s body … it was like I was releasing him from this terrible jail in the corner of his mind.”

After playing a few oldies, Carlton transitioned from what she described as the bottom part of the sourdough bread to the beef: her new album, “Liberman.” She wanted to clearly distinguish this album from the earlier songs she had written, as she felt as though the new album was “so sonically different and really lives in its own world.”  She continued, “It doesn’t work separating those songs and weaving in other songs from other times.”

With that in mind, Carlton played eight songs off of “Liberman.” My favorite came about halfway through the show, when Carlton launched into “Blue Pool.” This song really solidified for me what Carlton meant about this album being different from the rest of her catalogue. With a mesmerizing piano part and sweeping violin accompaniment, it was evident that Carlton pushed herself to achieve something far more intricate than her earlier work.

While the music from “Liberman” was distinct, if I had one critique, I would say I wish that Carlton had changed up the arrangements of these songs more. I wanted to see Carlton take the stage with just the piano and her voice because there were certain parts of the concert where she was simply pounding away at the piano and singing at the top of her range that were absolutely breathtaking. But some of the live violin and the prerecorded tracks coming from the laptop on stage kept the audience from fully appreciating her raw talent. Even the guy next to me said: “I don’t care for the prerecorded stuff.”

Later in the concert, Carlton brought out her husband, John McCauley, to play a few songs with her and her violinist. The banter between the two of them was hilarious, and I started to really understand what else had been missing during the concert: the spontaneity that comes with concert banter. While, as a songwriter, I really appreciated Carlton’s stories about the inspiration behind “Liberman,” I loved the unplanned jokes running between Carlton and her husband, from the chuckling about where they had left their 11-month-old daughter to the story about her dog, Victor. I was finally getting to see the true Vanessa.

After a few songs with McCauley, including a stunning duet by his band, Deer Tick, and a pretty straight rendition of “A Thousand Miles,” Carlton ended her 75-minute set the way she started, with another two songs from “Rabbits on the Run,” one of which she dedicated to those affected by the attacks in Paris.

While I really enjoyed the musicality of the concert and Carlton’s intricate arrangements, I was still left wanting more, wishing she had told a few more off-the-cuff anecdotes and sang with solo piano. I also had hoped she would sing one of my favorites, “Ordinary Day,” but with this new record, it’s evident that a Vanessa Carlton concert is much more than ordinary.

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