Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 5: Sara Bareilles, Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, Woodinville, WA, 9/2/13

I blame it all on getting our car radio fixed.

We used to have an XM receiver in our car, but when we took it out several years ago, we never reattached the antenna to the radio -- it was too hard to get to. Even the local stations were fuzzy, so we just got into the habit of grabbing some CDs (if it was my music) or an MP3-stocked phone (if it was Lori's) when we wanted music in the car.

Well, on one of our aging car's many visits to the shop this year, we had a technician get the radio working again. And while Lori and I were enjoying spinning around the dial, we stumbled on one of Seattle's pop stations and landed on a really catchy tune. Now, modern pop has never really been one of my great musical loves, but mixed among the jaunty little electronic drumbeat coming from the car speakers was an insistent eighth-note pattern on a piano and an arresting female voice. I've always had a soft spot for female singers -- I even have a Slacker station set up to play only female artists, to give you an idea -- and this voice was particularly sweet and melodic, with some good heft to it. Then the chorus came around, and I got a taste of just how powerful this singer's voice could get. And as a bonus, the melody was really catchy.

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
I wanna see you be brave

At that point I had to dig out my phone and pull up the Shazam app.

"Brave," by Sara Bareilles.

Hmm. Nice.

I found out that the song was from her then-forthcoming release. So I decided to see what else was out there, and within the next week or so, I'd tracked down her two major-label releases up to that time: Little Voice and Kaleidoscope Heart.

The former album opens with a jangly piano line that you could briefly mistake for Chicago's "Saturday in the Park," before it unfolds into a perversely upbeat kiss-off song.

I'm not gonna write you a love song
'Cause you asked for it
'Cause you need one

The best part? It's not about a relationship gone sour. It's a song Sara wrote about her record company, pressuring her to come up with a hit. This is the first song on her major-label debut, mind you. Now there's a woman not afraid to say what's on her mind.

Later on the same album is a tender piano ballad called "Between the Lines," which I take to be about a woman who's devastated when she finally comes to terms with the fact that her partner has been unfaithful and doesn't love her anymore. I've always found sorrowful songs to be some of the most beautiful ones, and this one hooked me right away -- but then it floored me when it got to the chorus. As one astute YouTube commenter put it, the chord progression is the stuff dreams are made of. I was breaking out in goosebumps the first time I heard it unfold. If you only listen to one of Sara's songs as a result of this review, make it "Between the Lines."

So now I had a pretty good handle on what Sara was capable of. She plays piano, she plays guitar, she writes her own music, she has a powerful mezzo-soprano voice with great range and control (and boy, is it a sexy voice when she dives down into contralto territory), she writes smart lyrics and incredible melodies, and she can work up anything from an upbeat piano-pop stomper to a heartbreaking ballad about love gone wrong. If I had to liken her to any other artists, I'd say she's sort of like a cross between a less sarcastic Ben Folds and a more irreverent Sarah McLachlan. Yeah, she has the whole earnest singer-songwriter thing going, but she has that playful edge that saves her from ever taking herself too seriously. There's not a lot of navel-gazing Lilith Fair-type stuff in her catalog. She doesn't dwell on how miserable she is over a broken heart; instead, she tells you off for breaking her heart in the first place.

Her second major-label album, Kaleidoscope Heart, has scarcely left the car's CD player since I got it. As pop confections go, it is delectable. Just overflowing with delicious piano riffs, unbelievable melodies, and, of course, Sara's commanding and beautiful voice. You get treated to everything from an a cappella title cut to the finger-snapping shuffle of "Gonna Get Over You," the soulful "Not Alone," the 6/8 blues-pop of "Machine Gun," and a few Sarah McLachlan-like tender moments in "The Light" and "Breathe Again." There's even a chorus in 11/4 on "Let the Rain," to satisfy my inner prog-rocker! The highlight, though, is "King of Anything," built around one of the tastiest piano grooves I've heard in a long time. Like "Love Song," the upbeat arrangement belies the subject matter -- in this case, a woman who's sick of someone else's unsolicited advice:

Who cares if you disagree?
You are not me
Who made you king of anything?
So you dare tell me who to be
Who died and made you king of anything?

I've been digesting her latest release, The Blessed Unrest, over the past several weeks. I haven't warmed to it as quickly as the rest of her material, even though the opening cut, "Brave," was what got me interested in her music in the first place. With the exception of a few notable tracks -- including "Brave," "Little Black Dress," and "Eden" -- it's a much more subdued album. The melodies are still gorgeous, of course, but the arrangements tend to be a little more introspective and subtle -- more mature in many respects. But they're slowly growing on me. The one thing I don't like is the synthetic electro-pop sounds on "Brave" and "Eden" that just scream "play me on Top 40 radio." Sara's best music is organically good and doesn't need the sheen of synthesizers and plastic drums to dress it up. I really hope she doesn't let her label or her producers bury her unique musical personality under a slick, generic pop veneer going forward. That would be a travesty.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a concert review, so let's talk about Chateau Ste. Michelle, shall we? It's a winery northeast of Seattle that puts on a summer concert series every year. It was fun walking past the vineyards to get to the open field where the stage was erected -- but that wasn't half as fun as watching all the people milling about with their bottles and wine glasses in hand before the show. I was actually a little reluctant to go and see this concert, because I thought I'd be completely out of my element, surrounded by screaming young girls and kind of feeling like a dirty old man. Turns out I was out of my element, but only because tie-dye and long hair don't mix so well with upper-middle-class attire -- guys in button-downs and slacks; ladies in blouses and skirts -- being worn by people who looked like they came right from their middle-management jobs at Microsoft. Oh, and of course, they swung by the daycare to bring their teen and tween daughters with them.

On the bright side, at least there wasn't a stinky cloud of marijuana smoke hanging over the audience. That was a nice change of pace from all the concerts I've been to recently.

Sara is co-headlining her tour with One Republic, a band that Lori likes but I know very little about. On this warm summer evening, Sara played first. With a big smile and a wave, she moved straight to her grand piano at center stage and launched her band -- guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and two cellists who doubled as backing singers -- into a piece from The Blessed Unrest called "Chasing the Sun."

Good song, but an odd choice for an opener, as it's a slower piece (about 80 beats per minute) with plaintive lyrics urging us all to chase after life and not let it pass us by. The piece is sung from the perspective of someone standing in a cemetery in Queens and realizing how fleeting life can be. Like I said, an odd choice for an opener, but I admit it did make me connect with the song more than I'd been able to by just listening to it on the CD. There's a lot of emotion packed into that song.

Wearing a black pantsuit and a gray fedora, Sara was dressed more casually than a lot of people in the crowd! But she seemed relaxed and came across as if she was having a great time. The smile hardly ever left her face, and she had a great rapport with the audience.

She came across as very down-to-earth, and at times seemingly humbled by the warm reception she got. She made lots of jokes about the ubiquitous wine bottles. ("You know what's great about wine? You can still get wasted, but you look so classy while you're doing it!") She seemed especially taken with a young girl in the front row, probably 11 or 12 years old, who apparently sang every word to every song. Midway through the show, Sara came down off the stage to give the girl a high-five -- and then Sara decided to reach out and hug her. Aww! So sweet. "Hey, I'll hug anyone else who knows all the words," she joked as she climbed back up onstage. I told Lori about that, and she said I should have tried to get Sara's attention! Only problems: (1) I know a lot of the words, but not all of them, and (2) Sara Bareilles is such a tiny thing that I'd probably crush her if I gave her a hug. Nice thought, though.

On the second song of the evening, "Gonna Get Over You," I noticed right away that some of the fun little ba-ba-doo-wop backing vocals from the studio version were absent. Sara's backing singers were busy harmonizing with her, so something clearly had to go. And on the next song, the R&B-flavored "Many the Miles," the sound from the stage completely cut out for about 10 seconds near the end! Things got back on course after that, but the missing doo-wops and the audio flub made it occur to me that there were no backing tracks being pumped in to sweeten the sound of the performance, the way a lot of performers do these days. I gave Sara a lot of credit for that. The temptation has to be there for an artist to "cheat" a little bit and let some pre-recorded music help flesh out the sound and pick up some of those studio overdubs that can't be replicated in a live setting. I think that kind of thing is especially prevalent for artists who do a lot of dancing and choreography onstage, to the point where some pop stars probably end up just lip-syncing a lot of their shows. Fortunately, Sara is more concerned with the music than with any flash or glitz. Even the apparent concessions she made on the album with the electronic drum beats were played live by her drummer on a drum pad attached to his set. The fact that this was a WYSIWYG type of pop concert was made very transparent. And that was refreshing to see.

Next came "Love Song," to a roar of cheers. And then a track I'd never heard before, called "I Wanna Be Like Me." Sara said it was an iTunes-only bonus track from The Blessed Unrest, and that she wrote it for her nieces, as a way to encourage them to stay true to themselves and the type of people they wanted to be, rather than what other people might want them to be. I'm all for the self-empowering, be-yourself anthems. The first thing I thought was that this would be a great theme song for Miranda. One of the things I want most for her is to boldly choose her own path in life, even if it's one I didn't see coming. You have to follow your muse wherever it leads you. Great song, too -- very poppy and upbeat, with a neat kind of stuttering start-stop rhythm pinning down the verses. It marked the first time during the evening that Sara stepped away from her piano and stood with mic in hand at the front of the stage.

After a slow ballad called "Gravity" -- a song about a person who tries to resist someone else but keeps getting pulled back -- Sara sat down at her piano and said she wanted to pay tribute to a song and an artist who'd been very influential on her. And that gave us one of the highlights of the evening -- a solo piano performance of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

Sara brought a beautiful wistfulness to her arrangement while paying great homage to the original song. I've heard her play a number of cover songs online, with some of the more remarkable highlights being the Beatles' "Oh Darling" and Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," and I really hope she decides to gather them all up someday for an all-covers album. You can just hear her love for those songs in her performances.

Next came "Manhattan," a slow, jazzy piece from The Blessed Unrest that I could easily hear coming from the likes of Diana Krall. Sara explained that the song was about her new home in New York, after moving across the country from Los Angeles, and how she felt alone after the end of a long-term relationship. That comment made me understand the new album a lot more -- it's little wonder that it all sounds more subdued than previous albums, if it was written in the aftermath of a breakup.

Sara moved through two more pieces from the new album: the too-much-pop-and-not-enough-Sara "Eden," and the gentle love song "I Choose You," for which she donned an acoustic guitar. That was a nice one. It's a song I can imagine being played at a lot of weddings in the future.

Next up, Sara gave me a chuckle as she transported me back to high school band -- when she grabbed a pair of concert crash cymbals off the top of her piano. Talk about being down to earth and putting the music first! How many pop divas do you think would dare to stand on stage looking like they were getting ready to go out marching on the football field at halftime? She crashed the cymbals together to punctuate the lines of the chorus in one of her best songs off the new album, "Cassiopeia," in which the constellation becomes a cosmic stand-in for a woman yearning to "collide" with the object of her affection. Sara's gorgeous glissando on the powerful chorus only added to the dramatic feel.

The show went way too quickly. Sara wrapped up with "King of Anything" and "Brave," followed by an encore of "Uncharted," a driving piano piece from Kaleidoscope Heart. There are so many more songs I would have loved to hear, especially "Between the Lines." Heck, she could have covered Donny Osmond's catalog for all I cared -- anything to hear her keep singing. It was a great show, and I'll definitely be going to see her again if she comes back this way.

My only complaint is that Sara possesses -- as she's put it in an interview -- the mouth of a trucker. She doesn't litter her lyrics with a lot of swearing, but she couldn't make it through any of her stage patter without dropping some crude language. I guess that's how she's inspired to express herself, but she also has a lot of impressionable young fans in her audience. Well, what can you do? I was just there for the music anyway.

The best thing about Sara Bareilles, in my view, is that she's living proof that some really good and genuinely talented artists still make it to the big time today. She's a bright ray of light shining over what I find to be a pretty crappy pop music scene. The problem is, a lot of people who might be interested in someone like Sara Bareilles will never hear her -- and that's one reason I wanted to write up this review. I know many people who never come near modern music and would miss out as a result. After all, I didn't hear Sara on classic rock radio; I heard her on a pop station that no one in my demographic is likely to seek out. That's a pity, because she has what it takes to carry the torch forward from great singer-songwriter icons like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Seriously, she's that good. Check her out if you ever get the chance.

Chasing the Sun
Gonna Get Over You
Many the Miles
Love Song
I Wanna Be Like Me
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
I Choose You
King of Anything


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