Face the Music: Brandi Carlile to play scaled-down Portland show for those who can afford it

Brandi Carlile at Thompson’s Point in Portland in August. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Brandi Carlile is having a moment. Several actually.

Not the least of which was selling out a solo performance at Portland’s State Theatre on Feb. 13 in the proverbial blink of an eye during a handful of pre-sales and then the general public sale last week.

The tickets, $125 to $250 (plus fees), were the most expensive I’ve ever seen for a show at the State.

When news broke that Carlile was performing the solo show, literally just her with a guitar and piano, I was fairly shocked. Her star has risen so high that a place the size of the State Theatre is a rarity on her tour schedule. She’s played the venue before, but it’s been years at this point. These days, you’ll only see her at the much larger Thompson’s Point.

But when I saw the asking price for tickets, I pitched a self-righteous, misguided fit. Part of it was fueled by what I saw on social media, as shockwaves went through members of her longtime fanbase who knew they couldn’t afford tickets.

I bemoaned the good old days of seeing her for free outside at L.L. Bean and seeing her all over the place, including Red Rocks in Colorado and Madison Square Garden for reasonable amounts of money. Worst off all, I judged and condemned Carlile.

Big questions came up – two in particular: How much is an artist worth? And how do I feel about the fact that many of her longtime fans simply cannot afford to attend what will surely be a very special performance in a venue with only 1,365 seats?

A publicist for Carlile didn’t respond last week to a request for an interview about the show, but promoter Lauren Wayne from the State Theatre explained that when an artist of Carlile’s level plays a much smaller venue, the laws of supply and demand kick in.

“There is a huge demand and a very limited number of tickets, and there is a certain amount that an artist needs to get paid in order to make it work,” she explained.

Wayne added that touring musicians are running a business and part of her job is to help make sure that their business is profitable so that it is sustainable. She also recognizes how far Carlile has come.

“An artist of Brandi’s caliber has worked tremendously hard her whole life honing her musicianship to get to the level she is today, so she and other artists and their crews deserve to get paid well.”

Although I’ve long been a diehard fan, when I actually sat down and took an inventory of her career, even I was newly impressed.

Carlile, 41, released her debut album in 2005. Seven have followed, all well received.

This past year, Carlile has been everywhere. She started off the with the Girls Just Wanna Weekend music festival in Mexico. Then she performed at the Grammys in February. She sang with Elton John during his last-ever show in the U.S. at Dodger Stadium in November. Carlile also was the musical guest on SNL on Dec. 10.

Carlile also pulled off the greatest music miracle I’ve ever witnessed, for real, in my entire life. She was the person responsible for Joni Mitchell’s return to the Newport Folk Festival in July. I’m still not over it and never will be.

This year, Carlile is nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including album of the year, best Americana album and best rock performance. She has already won six Grammys and has been nominated a total of 24 times.

Last year, her N0. 1 New York Times best-selling memoir, “Broken Horses,” was published, and she released the album “In These Silent Days” to much acclaim. In September, the album was re-issued with “In The Canyon Haze,” an all-acoustic version of the same songs, along with her take on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

But it’s not just the music. I’ve long been amazed at how much time Carlile and her longtime bandmates, brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth, along with cellist Josh Neumann, spend on the road. They never slow down, except when things like global pandemics force them to. But even then, they performed several livestreams from Carlile’s home in Washington State.

I took at look at the online archives of Carlile’s touring history and even that was exhausting. She never stops. Carlile has been playing shows since late in her teens. She did not catapult into instant stardom. Carlile has played the long game and played it well.

What’s more, there’s never been a time when she and her band didn’t leave it all on the stage during their concerts that I’ve seen. Every show is a celebration, a masterclass in musicianship and a moment in time that stays with me long after the ticket stub has been put in my giant glass jar. There is a sense of joy, peace, satisfaction and artistic gratification that comes with seeing Carlile live. It’s a spiritual experience that gets to the essence of why music is so important; it provides context and meaning in a world that can be unkind, cruel and frustrating. It provides hope, pride and a sense of belonging. Few other things do that for me and few other people do it as well as Carlile.

All this doesn’t mean I’m happy about the Portland show being out of reach for so many people. I saw heartbreak unfold in real time on a few Facebook pages. But it does mean I forked over a chunk of dough and bought a pair of tickets. Firmly in “spending beyond my means” territory but also firmly in #YOLO.

I spoke with another longtime local fan, Eliza Matheson of Cape Elizabeth, who has seen Carlile multiple times and also bought tickets to the Portland show, but had the same mixed emotions as I did.

“It’s a tale as old as time with really exceptional artists, so I’m not surprised, it’s just more like disappointment,” she said about the price of the tickets and the fact that so many fans won’t be able to afford them. But in the end, she’s happy about what it means for Carlile. “I’m so excited that she is finding so much success, hard-earned, absolutely worthwhile success, and she deserves it.”

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