The rest of the country has caught up to the Twin Cities — finally — when it comes to Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile.
We embraced her early in her career, thanks to regular Twin Cities gigs and steady radio airplay on Cities 97 and 89.3 the Current. And, for nearly 15 years, Minneapolis-St. Paul has been her biggest market — even bigger than her home turf of Seattle.
Last fall, Carlile packed Minneapolis' State Theatre for three nights, and then in February she won three Grammys — her first ones — and her popularity has been rising everywhere ever since. Finally.
On Saturday night, Carlile sold out the Minnesota State Fair grandstand (a record sixth grandstand sellout this year, doubling the old mark). And she couldn't have been giddier — all night long.
Let us count the ways.
When she took the stage in her champagne-colored silk suit, she thrust her right fist in the air, saluted and gazed out at the crowd with a look of "wow" on her face.
When opening act Mavis Staples, the legendary gospel-rock singer, joined her for a duet on "Friendship," Carlile seemed humbled and awed. After letting her voice soar over Staples' soulful rasp, Carlile literally bowed down to Staples, who insisted on calling the headliner "Lady Gangsta."
After only her third song, Carlile seemed verklempt. "My mind is blown," she exclaimed. "Look at all these people. ... This is an unspeakable honor."
When she reminisced about attending her first concert ever, Carlile said it was at the Washington State Fair for mother-daughter country duo the Judds. She pointed out where in the Minnesota grandstand was the equivalent of her seat that night, though the attendance back then wasn't nearly as big as Saturday's.
After Carlile got carried away on a roaring rendition of the early Led Zeppelin fave "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" (sounding like she was auditioning for the rock band Heart), she just marveled at the 13,137 fans. "Man," she declared. "This is one of the biggest shows we've played."
During the encore of the majestic ballad "Pride and Joy," Carlile peered out into the crowd, struck by the overwhelming show of lit-up cellphones. "This is absolutely beautiful," she declared. "All the big famous rock stars get to see this all the time. I wanted to see it once in my life."
Indeed, Carlile, 38, was overjoyed for 1¾ hours. But it didn't affect the performance of her songs. She was focused, passionate and in great voice, cooing ballads like Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," harmonizing on folk tunes like "The Eye" and belting rockers like her own "Mainstream Kid."
While less intimate than the shows at the State Theatre, Saturday's effort had a big-venue oomph not heretofore witnessed at Carlile's concerts, not even when she's played outdoors at the Basilica Block Party or the fair grandstand in 2010.
Backed by the Hanseroth twins ("We've been uncool together for nearly 20 years," she said), two other rock musicians and a three-piece string section, Carlile came out rocking on the foot-stomping, hoedown-y "Hold Out Your Hand." "Hard Way Home" had a Mumford & Sons-like artisanal folk quality, and "The Story," her signature early hit, was loud-and-soft folk-rock that found the singer jumping up and down and shaking her hair.
The sincerity and depth of her words shone through all night, especially on the solo acoustic reading of "The Mother," about her adapting to parenthood after early concerns about how she would handle it.
A fireworks finish
On Saturday, Carlile was in awe of this moment in Minnesota as much as she was about parenting her two daughters.She performed right through the grandstand's fireworks and finished with a rambunctious version of Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" before dropping to one knee, putting her hands in prayer position and bowing her head to the fans who had faith in her before the rest of the world finally discovered her.