Playing a solo show in front of a small audience in an intimate setting has got to be one of the most difficult tasks to pull off well. Last Friday, my daughters and I had the pleasure of seeing Sara Bareilles at one of the coolest venues I’ve ever been to: Milwaukee's Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center Auditorium, a hall that seats 435 in an odd, miniaturized arena-like setting.
In the midst of a short solo tour to drum up support for her forthcoming album, The Blessed Unrest, Bareilles seems very much at ease in the more intimate setting, eager to exchange quips with fans, and exhibiting that rare quality of being witty while still coming off as appreciative and sincere.
Bareilles’s piano chops are adequate, not brilliant, and her guitar work is similarly restrained, but none of that really mattered, because the star of the show was her vocal work on top of well-crafted pop songs. She’s got some serious pipes, with far more dexterity and control that I could have anticipated. As she effortlessly glided above the chord progressions of her new tune, “Manhattan,” to a perfectly hushed audience, Bareilles’s voice reminded me of Nora Jones with more of an edge. Unlike Jones, Bareilles has just enough anger, as exhibited in songs like “Love Song” and “King of Anything,” to make her repertoire varied and interesting.
What I like about Bareilles, and what made me particularly eager to take my daughters to the show, is the strong nature of her lyrics. Rarely do you find a performer whose words are both positive yet unyielding, vulnerable yet confident. Even her angry songs don’t lash out at her victims. Instead, they reveal her strength, as if to say, “You’re simply not good enough for me.” Whether or not it’s been her intention as a performer, assisting girls and women to raise the bar in their love lives had been a fine byproduct of her career.
Her new song, “Brave,” co-written with Fun’s Jack Antonoff, couldn’t have a more fitting message, especially for teenagers: be who you are and don’t be afraid to speak out. It’s not filled with f-bombs. It doesn’t play the victim. It doesn’t lay blame. It just inspires.
Bareilles’s 90 minute performance left the small crowd happy, even after the odd encore of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” But in a way, her rendition of this classic song exemplified the entire evening: her sparse arrangement cultivated a more creative approach, allowing for minor tempo and harmonic modifications, not to mention adlibbed vocal parts, that resulted in just enough unpredictability to make the song sound new again.
No small feat.
Sara's new album is due out in July.