At first, Vanessa Carlton’s show at the Music Box last night seemed like it was going to be a somber affair: The pianist/songwriter began her 75-minute set with a brief snippet of Tom Petty’s “Learning To Fly” before seguing into a very serious version of “Carousel,” the first song from her 2011 LP, Rabbits On The Run.
However, starting with the night’s third song, “White Houses”—which she presaged with an amusing story about how the song’s bridge consistently embarrassed her younger brother when he was in high school—the concert blossomed into a show full of engaging songwriting insights and warm, personable confessions. (Later in the night, she confessed that she had ingested coffee spiked with Wild Turkey before the show at her hotel, which might explain the candor.) After “White Houses,” which radiated confidence, Carlton announced, “Okay, we’re no longer in 2004—we are in 2015.” Thus began what she called “the Liberman chapter” of the night—in other words, a series of songs from her latest studio album, which sonically “lives in its own world,” she noted. To help recreate Liberman’s dense textures and synth-dazzled sound, Carlton called on violinist Skye Steele, who sat at stage right manning a series of instruments—laptop, acoustic guitar, looping mechanisms—to add elements such as feathery acoustic riffs, sawtooth string melodies and galloping digital drums.
The pair’s collaborations were often mesmerizing. Especially stunning was the thundering new song “Willows”: Not only was the song inspired by the Pennsylvania cabin which “defined my childhood,” Carlton noted, but it also explored the familial ties and observations she discovered after becoming a mother herself in early 2015. “Operator” was a synthpop gem with almost New Order-esque, danceable beats; “House Of Seven Swords” boasted underwater-sounding, eerie keyboard embellishment; and the self-described “swirly” “Bluepool” boasted insistent guitar. There were even nods to her more classical-sounding moments with “River,” a tune Carlton called the “last part of the Liberman sandwich.”
In between these songs, Carlton told a series of elaborate, touching and introspective stories about their origins—and, in the process, touched on everything from her brother following his muse and becoming an artist, gleaning inspiration from tarot cards, writing a “teen breakup song” and learning about her family name of Liberman. This confessional approach extended to the requisite performance of “A Thousand Miles,” which was preceded by loving shout-outs to her long-haired dachshund, Victor, and a quick, heartfelt remembrance of writing the hit song in her dorm room at age sixteen.
“Miles” was performed with delicacy and restraint, with Steele matching Carlton’s mincing piano with almost wispy violin. The effect was far from weak, however; if anything, it treated the song’s youthful origins and worldview with utmost respect. It also had the effect of allowing the final two songs, the haunting standouts “Hear The Bells” and more restrained “Marching Line,” feel like the perfect cappers on a night where smart songwriting and thoughtful craftsmanship took center stage.