The friendship of Brandi Carlile and Tanya Tucker — who won two Grammys at last month’s awards ceremony — was on full display at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday night.
The show was supposed to take place in early December, but was rescheduled due to Carlile having laryngitis. And even though she was fighting off a bit of a cough, she promised the audience that she was fully present and she was not going to cancel on Salt Lake City again.
The show opened with 61-year-old Tucker, the longtime country music star who started her career at age 13 with the hit “Delta Dawn.” After years out of the spotlight, she’s come back with a new album produced by Carlile and Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon Jennings, that finally earned her Grammys for Country Song of the Year and Country Album of the Year.
She took to the stage at Vivint in a long black coat and fedora covering her pink-streaked blond hair. Her strong deep voice has a bit of an edge to it, and she belted out her set with a powerful energy that got the crowd going. She talked about living in St. George as a child, getting her first kiss from a boy at school, and loving the friends she met there.
Tucker shimmied and shaked her way across the stage, singing songs from her new album, “While I’m Livin’,” and a number of classic hits. “I’ve been working this old mule like a new one,” Tucker told the audience, though it really wasn’t apparent from where we were sitting.
Highlights of her set included “High Ridin’ Heroes” from her new album, on which Shooter Jennings — whom she calls “Little Waylon” — plays piano. At a piano solo during this performance, Tucker and her bandmates all turned to face the piano player near the middle of the stage. They all stood still, watching him play, in what felt like an act of honor to both the musician and the music. It was a sobering moment and an example of the power of live music. And then in a heartfelt thank you to her parents, her family, and “the man upstairs,” she started with a verse of “Amazing Grace” and moved into her first hit, “Delta Dawn.”
If you weren’t a Tanya Tucker fan going in, you certainly left as one.
Carlile took to the stage and opened with “Hold Out Your Hand” a rowdy, fast-paced romper from her latest album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” which has traditionally closed out past shows.
Throughout the show Carlile weaved in stories of family, empathy, gratitude and a reverence for the music and the journey she has been on with her bandmates, twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, since the early ’90s.
Introducing the song “The Eye” from 2015’s “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” she talked about how they first met in the height of grunge but had a love of three-part harmony like Crosby, Stills and Nash. She recalled trading in her collection of beat-up guitars for some equipment, including two microphones. She handed Tim and Phil each a mic, and told them, “If they would form a band with me, I promised we would make it.” They swapped in their punk and grunge sensibilities for acoustic guitars and their three voices blending into a perfect chord. And the rest, as they say is history.
Other Carlile staples made the setlist, including:
“The Mother” — a tender song about becoming a mother to her first-born daughter, Evangeline, featuring Carlile soloing on an acoustic guitar. She invited the audience to usurp the song for their own “Evangeline,” even if that’s “a niece or a nephew or a cat.”
“The Joke” — an anthem to the disenfranchised that closed out the main set.
“Fulton County Jane” — a song dedicated to a Jane Doe found in Georgia, featuring Tim Hanseroth on banjo, and a surprise French horn.
But in the mix were covers:
“A Case of You” — a Joni Mitchell song that Carlile first sang when she performed the entire “Blue” album this past October in California at Mitchell’s 75th birthday celebration. The song is a love letter with a note of desperation to it, and Carlile’s signature vibrato filled every square inch of the arena. Each time the chorus came around — “You’re in my blood like holy wine, so bitter, and so sweet” — it reverberated through my chest.
“Crowded Table” — Brandi represented The Highwomen, a supergroup she formed with singer-songwriters Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires, plus country darling Maren Morris.
“Madman Across the Water” — a near lifetime admirer of Elton John, Carlile and her band rocks this moody classic, hard charging through even the quieter moments of the song.
Another way Carlile paid tribute to musical heroes, she brought Tucker back to the stage for a verse of “That Wasn’t Me” a song about addiction and redemption from the album “Bear Creek” released in 2012. Carlile and Tucker then sang Tucker’s Grammy-winning song, “Bring My Flowers Now,” with Carlile on the piano. This song was written by the two women, plus both Hanseroth twins. It’s an emotionally charged ballad with an earnest plea to show love for people while they’re alive (Tucker’s album is, in fact, titled “While I’m Livin’ ”).
When the song ended, the two embraced and took their bows. Though they must have performed this song together dozens, if not hundreds of times by now, Carlile still looks at Tucker like a superfan, genuinely in awe of being in proximity to a personal musical hero. It’s a beautiful thing to watch musicians loving other musicians.
The show was closed out with a two-song encore: a loud, rocking and powerful rendition of “Pride & Joy” from 2009’s album, “Give Up the Ghost.” The 10-year-old song got new life breathed into it, backed by the full force of the band. It built up to an energetic drum solo with the help of the Hanseroths each manning their own floor drum and executing a terrific choreographed display of high-reaching drumsticks that came crashing down in a soul-shattering bang.
Everyone could have walked out at that point, and it would have felt like a great finish. But Carlile sat at the piano and played “Party of One,” a song about the importance of coming home and not giving up on relationships. The song is quiet and thoughtful and has an air of exhaustion as the singer talks about being tired of the fight, not being able to do it any longer. But when she decides to come home, there is a confidence that comes in, or resolve to do better, to be better. The stage lights widened as drums, guitar, bass and the string trio join the piano, giving the song a rich, full sound. And while not a traditional big finish, it was a thoughtful one.
Carlile thanked the audience for a second chance to play. It was safe to say that Salt Lake City was glad to have her back.