We’ve all been to the arena concerts when the pop star soaks in the spectacle of his or her adoring audience. Blanketed in an elaborate costume, the star extends his or her arms in five-point fashion, praising fans for sticking around during this journey of “Wildest Dreams” (looking at you, Taylor Swift).
While there’s a place for those types of evenings, a concert with Vanessa Carlton is not one of them. Carlton, 35, performed an intimate show on Wednesday at the Cedar Cultural Center to a seated and packed house.
The singer-songwriter, whose 2001 hit “A Thousand Miles” is still freshest in public memory, has long been absent from Top 40 lists. She’s since produced four other indie/pop albums, most recently “Liberman,” which acquired a coveted 7.8 stars from Pitchfork. Pitchfork’s review nods to Carlton’s signature “honeysuckle voice and piano licks,” while also comparing her work to Fleetwood Mac and the Mamas & the Papas. Her lyrics make you want her to be the one to tell you “shit happens,” Pitchfork says, and that she did in Minneapolis.
It was evident at her show that the singer-songwriter is still beheld by fans, unlike other one-hit wonders Rebecca Black, and to an extent, Carly Rae Jepsen (please don’t hurt me, “Call Me Maybe” devotees). Here’s why her sincerity sticks:
1. No emphatic “thank you’s”: Carlton isn’t steeped in shameless self-promotion like performers with resounding celebrity appeal (Insert T-Swift knock #2). She doesn’t sell as many records, sure, but she also doesn’t boast the cheesy gratitude for fans who clearly still revel in her romantic sounds. She actually didn’t acknowledge the tiny merch stand carrying her latest record and some T-shirts until late in the show.
2. Memories were genuine: An endearing inside joke throughout the show was the time Carlton did peyote with a best friend in Mexico, inspiring her capacity for joy. Between songs, Carlton would also recall her early years at the School of American Ballet in New York City, where she danced at age 13 and spontaneously wrote “A Thousand Miles.” We learned about her brother Edmund, who was apparently completely humiliated as a teenager over the popularity of her coming-of-age “White Houses.” She revealed to him at a spot in the Lower East Side that she, in fact, co-wrote the song and was not responsible for the line that’s speculatively about one’s “first time.”
3. Early wave didn’t sink her ‘tude: For some performers, the past gift of fame can spoil the present. But Carlton spoke candidly, and briefly, about being most recognized for her earliest work. She could have easily salvaged the right to prioritize her new tracks, burying the throwback jewels for last. But she belted out “White Houses” early on to the eager screens of Snapchat videographers in the crowd.
4. An exuberant violinist: Carlton since 2007 has been touring with the same guy, Skye Steele. With a Macbook perched in front of him, Steele cued up the music and accompanied her occasional piano with some sensual-looking strums of a violin and acoustic guitar. Maybe it was an act, but he played that string instrument like it was the first time they’d ever been onstage together.
5. Potent lyrics: This was a show not about shock factor but about evoking experiences. Carlton’s performance of “White Houses” can still get grown women’s hearts, broken, repaired, whatever, pulsing like a teenager. Her latest “House of Seven Swords,” she shared, was inspired by a deck of cards that she found in the house that she now shares with husband and nine-month-old daughter. The song beats with “it is what it is” sentiments dedicated to Edmund, who’s navigating the post-graduate world. Her performance of “I Don’t Want to Be a Bride” from her 2011 album “Rabbits on the Run” still shone with unabashed irony. Next time you’re in an aisle with a Carlton performance or album, put a ring on it.