Colorado loves Red Rocks and the handsome, open-air amphitheater loves us back. It’s the best outdoor music venue in the country — every performer there swears it at least four times — and the place has served up thousands of special nights under the starry foothills sky.
But Red Rocks will turn on you in a flash, and that’s not a metaphor. When storms roll east out the Rockies they have tendency to channel right through the town of Morrison and directly over those famous, wooden bleachers. One crack of thunder in the distance and audiences are keenly aware that their generous, old friend is stingy in the ways of shelter. Some nights, the show goes on and on and on.
The threat of storms hovered over Brandi Carlile‘s concert there Saturday night. The doors opened an hour late as an unrelenting deluge dropped buckets on the park’s gravely slopes. A slow, steady drizzle lingered right through the sets of opening act, the Lone Bellow, and well into the playing of second-billed Blind Pilot.
But then nature, which can really mess with your head in Morrison, offered a break. A sliver of moon appeared over the edges of those giant ruddy boulders at the back of the house and suddenly everything was alright. The plastic ponchos came off just as surely as the headliner came on.
Carlile is another force of nature, of course, but a gracious one. She opened with her countrified stomper “Hard Way Home,” and then gave a nod to the collective sacrifice her fans had endured: “Thank you for not leaving,” she said, though everyone knew that was never going to happen.
She quickly ramped up the tempo with the whooping, party anthem “Raise Hell” and kept the energy level zoomed for the next two hours.
The show was powered by the songs from her 2012 album “Bear Creek” and they were the freshest of the night. “A Promise I Can’t Keep,” “100,” “That Wasn’t Me,” they all showed Carlile is able to keep the music coming and keep it credible.
There were surprising covers, too. The band onstage jammed long and reverently through Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Carlile played solo on Radiohead’s signature “Creep.” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” served for an extended show biz-y encore.
But in some ways, the song choices at a Brandi Carlile concert are secondary, and that was the case here. The main event is her voice, which moves smoothly from something pure and sweet to something with crackle and punch. She’s a country singer really, her nature is to attack and conquer notes like Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells and, like those legends, she can get stuck in a ditch of sincerity.
Then Carlile moves easily into rocker mode, and that saves her from saccharine ruin. She can gruff and shout her way right through to a power ballad’s end and that combo of growl and howl is what makes her special.
And likable. Carlile seemed genuinely charmed to be playing to a full house in Colorado, truly grateful to the weather for clearing up and keenly aware of the place in pop music history a performer gets for playing at that handsome amphitheater. A gig at Red Rocks is a special thing. She swore four times, and at least four times more.
Ray Mark Rinaldi is the Entertainment editor at The Denver Post and a regular contributor to Reverb.