Musicians tend to save their breakthrough single for the end of the night, such as Smashmouth with “All Star,” but singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton pleasantly surprised the audience by beginning her March 19 concert at City Winery with her famous single, “A Thousand Miles.” During the stop on her Liberman tour, Carlton accompanied herself on a grand piano as her longtime musical partner, Skye Steele, provided backup vocals and violin melodies, making the iconic song more stylized than its original form. The audience was mesmerised by Carlton’s mature voice, and accepted the new rendition. Addressing her new style, Carlton said she noticed her voice mature since her early career. Her training and development beam through her elegant control of dynamics, pacing and timbre.
Carlton pointed out that her songs tell stories; the evening would not have felt complete without the short anecdotes and politicized statements accompanying the songs. Her always genuine, sometimes sarcastic personality contextualized her songs and made them more relatable for the audience. As bisexual Jewish women from Queens, N.Y. who have moved to the South, love to sing and play piano, support the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and criticize alternative facts, Carlton and myself have similar perspectives on the subjects of her lyrics.
She shared humorous life lessons, such as, “If your partner tells you they’re going to one city but they end up in a different city, [that’s a] red flag.”
Her blatant messages sometimes resulted in light chuckles, but others captivated the audience’s attention with universal truths.
Explaining her inspiration for the song “White Houses,” Carlton said that in college, “we build who we are in our years in those dorms,” eliciting nostalgic nods and sentimental smiles from the audience.
The majority of her concert included songs from Liberman, an homage to her grandfather. He painted the same woman sitting in three positions in a classical style but used surreal colors, which influenced the album. A replica of the painting served as a backdrop for the stage and lights playfully manipulated the colors. Similar to her grandfather’s art, Carlton’s music uses a palette of sounds that encourages experimentation. She and Steele used technology to improvise, layering playback and live music and creating a chorus of her own sustained echoes while she sang. The audience knew they were witnessing a unique artistic experience, which added excitement to the spectacle. Carlton joked that every night the duo hopes their sounds come together. At this performance, the coherent layering successfully contributed to the music’s futuristic quality.
In addition to Carlton’s self expression through music, her acknowledgement of social issues powerfully connected fantastical music to reality. Part of an artist’s duty is to bring awareness to injustice, but advocating for change is more important. Carlton dedicated her song “Who’s To Say?” to the “LGBTQ+” community and another song, “Marching Line,” to families affected by the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.
Carlton’s dedication to social justice further showed that her music is not just about herself but that she compassionately empathizes with those in pain. She employs her role as a musician to encourage others to spread love.
Carlton talked freely about her personal life, her baby and husband. The candid descriptions of her family made the audience feel like her equal, not just an idol to adore. Ironically, her encore performance included “I Don’t Want To Be A Bride.” At first the audience was concerned because she has a loving relationship with her husband, but she clarified that a loving relationship is real whether it is officiated or not.
The beautiful ode to love was followed by a feel-good cover of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” which Carlton and artist Tristen, who opened for Carlton, sang a capella together. This felt out of place, as they sang it in a country style, but the audience ate it up and sang along. The two singers were having fun on stage, smiling and dancing together. It was the only song for which Carlton did not sit at the piano; she instead stood closer to the audience, singing into a microphone.
Vanessa Carlton proved that she is not the product of a label; she expresses herself in unusual musical structures. She not only breaks away from the typical pop-style mold, but she succeeds.
Carlton’s commitment extends beyond her musical and personal life to serving the public. A percentage of all proceeds from merchandise on sale at the concert was donated to the American Civil Liberties Union, and if I wasn’t going to buy a T-shirt before, that promise to donate convinced me. Artists are leaders and some, like Carlton, walk the extra thousand miles to work for justice.