Sara Bareilles had just finished singing a solo piano version of "She Used to Be Mine" from her popular Broadway musical "Waitress." The crowd Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul responded with a loud, long standing ovation. The singer remained at the keyboard, closed her eyes, took a deep breath and soaked it all in.
It was a moment that illustrated the awkwardness of the situation.
Bareilles writes intimate pop songs for graceful records, not big pop songs for sports coliseums. But the increase in her popularity from "Waitress" dictates that she performs in the bowl end of arenas, which was the case in front of maybe 6,000 people at the X.
Bareilles, 39, showed a splendid soprano with a hint of sweetness and a hint of soulfulness. Her band, which included a cellist and violinist, was tasteful and precise. Her well-crafted songs were nicely set up by introductions explaining what inspired them (in the case of her new album – her first in six years – it was mostly the 2016 election).
But her songs are small. She creates art, not arena anthems. Hence, her pleasing 110-minute performance would have played better in a theater than a hockey palace.
Still, many numbers stood out: the poppy and playful "King of Anything"; the almost rockin' "Bad Idea" from "Waitress," performed as a duet with band member Butterfly Boucher; the Carole King-esque pop-soul "If I Can't Have You" (another duet, with opening act Emily King); the dark, hesitant funk "Armor" from this year's "Amidst the Chaos" album; the soulfully intimate "Miss Simone" (about the music of Nina Simone becoming the soundtrack to a new relationship), and her 2007 sing-along hit "Love Song."
But the highlight was her arena-ready anthem "Brave." Bareilles dedicated it to the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital nurses in the crowd who'd made a video of the 2013 tune with cancer patients that became a viral sensation.
The singer said she'd visited the hospital in the afternoon and met a girl named Bella, who inspired Bareilles to wear a pink (and black) skirt on stage Wednesday. That emotion could have filled a stadium.