“I don’t think I’ve ever played in Austin before. I honestly don’t remember — does anybody here know? No? Ok great, it’s your first time. It’s my first time too — really!” Vanessa Carlton was tentative in her assessment. She didn’t want to damage anyone’s memories. Really, it’s weird to think that she hadn’t ever played Austin before — there was a time when her songs were everywhere. For the nostalgia-chasers who came to the Parish hoping for a front-to-back performance of Carlton’s debut, Be Not Nobody, disappointment was in order. For those open to the growth anyone would inevitably have after 12 years, a mature, daring and funny musician put on a hell of a show to an intimate crowd.
The night kicked off with a beautiful ballad called “Carousel,” with lilting, melancholy lyrics and a piano-driven undertow. The whole night, it was just Carlton and longtime musical cohort Skye Steele, who performed backup vocals, violin and loop pedal magic that stood in for a percussionist.
“Before going into the future I think we have to go back to the past,” Carlton said as an introduction to her second song of the night. “Once we go forward we can’t go back.” She then explained that the song, “White Houses,” traumatized her younger brother because he was a freshman in high school when it came out, and the lyrics implied that his older sister Vanessa was writing a confessional about losing her virginity. “But when you’re a musician you collaborate and that was a part I didn’t write, and when I told my brother this a couple years back — the look of relief on this grown man’s face was palpable.”
After this quick dive into a bygone era, Carlton essentially played Liberman, her latest release, front to back with few exceptions. The whole record came from a very personal place for Carlton — the album’s name was taken from her grandfather, whose name was Liberman but changed to Lee when he moved to New York because “he felt he’d be more successful in New York if he had a less ethnic name.”
In general, Carlton’s music is big and layered — it takes twists and turns that you wouldn’t expect. “Willows,” a track that Carlton says is about motherhood and tying the thread between her own mother and herself (she has a year-old baby with husband John McCauley III of Deer Tick), is an urgent lullaby; “Operator” is a fierce and driving dare.
Because she is benevolent, Carlton did bring back “A Thousand Miles,” one of her biggest hits to date — it was more understated and sweet with just two people powering through it, and Carlton seemed bemused that a “35 year old woman is playing a 16 year old’s song,” but the audience was thrilled. Grown men and woman sang their hearts out, and when she’d finished, Carlton said, “For all the people who were talking up until that song, shame on you cause you missed all the good shit.” The call-out was necessary; there were people shouting over the singer during her newer material, but luckily most of them vacated the venue after “Miles,” leaving everyone else to quietly enjoy her final two songs, “Hear the Bells” and “The Marching Line.”
Before she started playing “The Marching Line,” Carlton talked about the attacks in Paris, particularly at the Eagles of Death Metal show. “I was seriously scared after that because that was a venue, just like this one, where people just like you went to see some music and were killed.” She dedicated “The Marching Line” to the victims and their families, and the venue was quiet with contemplation. There was a haunting moment where Carlton seemed possessed by her musical mentors — Stevie Nicks, in particular — and you remembered that this is exactly why live music is sacred, and why it’s worth it to keep listening.