BWW Reviews: Sara Bareilles Plays to Capacity Crowd at Wolf Trap, Displays Enviable Musicianship
Ok, full disclosure. I am a musical theatre geek who can probably name the most obscure musical theatre songs known to mankind, but I don't pay that much attention to pop culture as consumed by the general public. There's nothing wrong with it. It's just not really my thing. You'll find me at classical or jazz concerts, and numerous cabaret events, but few others that are skewed in the traditional rock/pop domain. However, every now and again, a performer with mass popular appeal catches my attention due to songwriting and vocal talents that could be considered to be first-rate regardless of genre. One of those talents that I happened upon some years ago was multiple Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles. I've not had the opportunity to see her live in a full concert - save for a wonderful experience at the Kennedy Center's American Voices event - but had such an opportunity last night at Wolf Trap where she played to a capacity-crowd. A crowd, I might add, that was probably a little more diverse than I expected. In front of me were numerous little girls in booster seats with their parents, a myriad of 20-somethings, and some older couples as well. In hindsight, this makes sense because her work offers a little something for everyone.
Following two 20-30 minute opening acts - the sultry voiced Emily King and the incredibly inventive Lucius (I dug the use of percussion even if the lyrics were largely unintelligible from the front orchestra) - and an intermission, Ms. Bareilles delivered one of the most varied ninety minute sets I've encountered. Starting off strong with the theme song of her current tour - "Little Black Dress" - appropriately donning (you guessed it) a little black dress, her ability to engage a crowd was immediately apparent. A fun anthem to individuality ("I Wanna Be Like Me"), complete with an endearing lyric screw up, and a solid rendition of "Chasing the Sun" - which explores the need to live life to the fullest - gave way to some of my favorite selections of the evening.
Sandwiched between some of her hits that have received extensive radio play - "I Choose You," "Love Song," "King of Anything," and the inspiring "Brave" towards the end of the concert - were several selections that overwhelmingly provided evidence that Ms. Bareilles is, if anything, a stellar performer with a solid and versatile musical sense, a knack for unique arrangements, and a talent for writing sophisticated, on-point lyrics that highlight the human condition. Couple those assets with a vocal range that would make many Broadway performers envious, and a seemingly effortless ability to incorporate her piano/guitar as an element of her performance rather than a crutch, one has to marvel at her skillset. If that weren't enough, her air of vulnerability mixed with confidence makes her standout amongst her peers.
The bluesy and guitar-driven cover of "Come Round Soon" proved to be a highlight for me. Appropriate grit mixed with polish, her rendition was marked with not only incredible vocal control, but emotion that was far from being "put on." It was a perfect blend of solid technique and engaging song delivery that was well suited for the song. An acoustic cover of "Chandelier," a recent pop hit by Sia, also showed originality and well, simply put, a vocal talent that extends far beyond what the originator has to offer. Her instrument, simply put, can do it all and very well at that.
Of her original tunes, the contemplative "Manhattan," "Gravity," "Hercules," "Uncharted," resonated the most with me, but for different reasons. "Manhattan" proved surprisingly intimate in the cavernous venue and was well-matched with NYC-inspired projections. "Hercules" and "Gravity" are notable for the interesting arrangements superbly delivered by Ms. Bareilles and her equally talented band featuring a keyboardist, a cellist, a violinist, a percussion player, and two guitarists. I especially appreciated her versatile string section and was glad there was no skimping in that area (other artists take note). The cellist and violinist really added to the interesting soundscape that emerged with "Hercules." A choice to sub-divide "Gravity" into a song that features Sara alone on her piano (where, let's face it, she really excels) and then ultimately involves her band towards the end of the song provided an emotional and musical buildup that was particularly effective. The clean and not unnecessarily complicated arrangement used for "Uncharted," likewise, allowed the strength of the lyrics to shine through.
While I could quibble at the long wait between opening acts (perhaps it would be more effective to alternate opening acts on tour or use the same setup for both) and other delays, in the end they were forgotten because I was so impressed with her concert. I look forward to seeing more of Sara in future concerts, perhaps even backed by a symphony (National Symphony Orchestra and Steven Reineke, are you listening?). I think her talents would serve her well in that setting.
Graphic: Courtesy of Wolf Trap website.