City Winery uncorks a night of female singer songwriters with Vanessa Carlton and opener Tristen
“We’re just gonna let this sh*t sail.”
They say a book can be defined by its opening line. Well, if Vanessa Carlton’s recent show at City Winery was a novel, I think I’d read that book in heartbeat.
Instead of a novel, that prose opened Carlton’s set with her recognizable hit “A Thousand Miles.” Vanessa continued, “We’re just gonna let this baby cry,” as she struck the familiar opening notes of the song.
The tone, and this show, marked a shift from the past, a desire to move on, and a celebration of new sounds.
But just for a moment, let’s place “A Thousand Miles” in context:
If you were ever in a car with a radio in the 2000’s, you heard the song. This was pre-Grey’s Anatomy, post-Lilith Fair, and present day Maverick Records. Yes, music videos were still a thing. No, boy bands were not. The time was ripe, ready, and full of young female singer songwriters with easy-to-listen-to hit pop songs that still grace radio stations today: Michelle Branch, Anna Nalick, Avril Lavigne, Natasha Bedingfield, Nelly Furtado (“I’m Like A Bird” Nelly, not “Maneater” Nelly)… the list goes on.
Well … you used to hear Vanessa Carlton on the radio. Now, you can hear her 30,000 feet in the sky: “Take It Easy,” the first track on Carlton’s recent release Liberman, plays as you board select Delta flights. Carlton joked that this was her finest achievement.
Liberman, released in 2015, signaled a departure for Carlton. The synth-pop album, which still centers on Carlton’s piano playing, was written after Carlton’s marriage and entry into parenthood. Liberman pays homage to Carlton’s grandfather and the dream like feel of his oil paintings, one of which graced the stage at City Winery. You could close your eyes and join her in that dream, but if you did, you’d be missing the opportunity to watch Vanessa on piano and her long time collaborator and violinist Skye Steele pair their work. Either way, you’d be rewarded with an ethereal state created through looped violin tracks, vocals, sound…and wine. Though only one glass because, as Carlton noted, we weren’t sure what we going to get if she had two.
In some ways, the choice of having fellow Nashville songwriter Tristen as an opener helped to signal this synth pop change. Not to be confused with Tristan Prettyman who yes, like Carlton, started releasing songs in the aforementioned 2000’s songwriter era, Tristen, dubbed by The Boston Globe as “Nashville’s best kept secret,” may not be a secret any longer. Alongside her hilarious and charming predictability in terms of titles (case and point: “This song is about nobody knowing. It’s called “Nobody’s Gonna Know”) came crafted pop songs with an unique, unabashed vocal sound.
Tristen’s variety was certainly on display, from the acoustic drives of “Baby Drugs” to the synth drives of “Catalyst” (not to be confused with “Catalyst” of the aforementioned Anna Nalick) the latter of which sounds like something straight of the 80’s. “Catalyst” did exactly as its name predicted: jumpstarted the set.
With the energy they contain, one couldn’t help but wonder why, then, “Catalyst,” and fellow stand out song “No One’s Gonna Know” were placed solidly in the middle of Tristen’s set as opposed to in the beginning where it could have lived up to its definition: increase the rate of a reaction. That said, variety and versatility are traits her headliner, Carlton, harbors, as do others who’ve transcended genres and types. Here, it feels undefined, and teetering on the edge: Are we into synths or not into synths? Are the songs weird (“Psychic Vampire” is one such amazing title) or not weird? Is it guitar driven or not guitar driven?
Or, is the point that I’m asking all these questions? Or, might the direction be confirmed with Tristen’s upcoming release, Sneaker Waves, due this summer?
If Tristen did want to go full on weird, she wouldn’t have to go far: Stevie Nicks is a friend of Carlton’s and married her and her partner John McCauley. Perhaps she too, can take Tristen under her shawl draped wing.
To close the evening, Tristen came out to join Vanessa for a cover of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.” And in that moment, Tristen wasn’t just face to face with another artist. She was face to face with female songwriting history before her.