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Minnesota State Fair

Review and photos: Brandi Carlile lights up the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand

Brandi Carlile. (Photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR)
Brandi Carlile. (Photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR)

by Lydia Liza

September 01, 2019

Before last night I was a Brandi fan, but I was no fanatic. I have come to the light.

I spent most of the time before the show surveying the landscape, assessing what kind of “crowd” we’d be dealing with tonight. I was slightly taken by surprise because it was a mix of…well…everybody. That made me proud and excited; I usually know I’m in for a good show if that person has that kind of power. The power to bring people from all walks of life together.

There was everyone from dads rocking The National tees to some girls I went to high school with, to Goldie the MFin' gopher. Or wait, what’s the State Fair's mascots name? Is he a chipmunk? “I thought he was a chipmunk…” I heard some woman behind me say. “Wait, is he a gopher?” I’m no Minnesotan, I’m a charlatan. I’ve been here twenty-four years and I’ve got no idea. I had no answers for this poor woman.

After an opening set from Nashville native Savannah Conley, the show landed earnestly and humbly in the church of Mavis Staples. During her entire set I was thinking about how much better off we’d all be if she was president. Her songs are so connecting and authentic, and you could feel the spirit of the stadium rise. And my God, I could go for a Mavis Staples comedy set. I was absolutely stunned when she sang later in the set, like chimes made of gravel, “I MIGHT JUST RUN FOR PRESIDENT.” The crowd nearly died. You could tell we’d all been thinking the same thing, because she got three standing ovations during her set.

Brandi took the stage to a massively welcoming crowd well-warmed by Chipmunk the Gopher and Ms. Staples. She started her set with “Hold Out Your Hand,” an absolute ripper. My first impression was that Brandi is so seasoned and so incredible at making you feel like she sees you and that you, too, are instrumental in the performance.

Grandstand concerts look so hard to command, but Brandi had everybody viscerally there with her as she continued to build and build the set — including a touching duet with Staples on "Friendship" — until she pulled it down with “The Eye.”

I have never heard such a big crowd go so silent. The talent of twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Carlile's collaborators and bandmates, can not be overstated — they all together create such a well-oiled machine. “We’ve been playing together for almost 20 years!” Brandi said at one point, and their harmonies are so complex and creative.

The band also unveiled Brandi’s magical cover of “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell, of which she will perform as part of an upcoming performance of the entirety of Blue in Los Angeles. BOOM, another standing ovation. This block of the set let her show her genius vocal control and prowess, because, from that, we dove straight into a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," and then into "The Joke." Brandi’s voice comes from somewhere deep, deep within her. She is so vocally arresting.

My favorite thing about the entire show was that the French horn player had a look of absolute surprise take over his face every time he pulled the horn from his lips. Like there was no way that swooning toot came from him. Complete bliss. But see, that was the thing about the show. You could tell that everyone was having the time of their lives. They were so connected, so in love with each other, impressing themselves constantly. It was so beautiful.

Even the literal fireworks didn't stop Brandi, as she and her band powered through an encore that climaxed with a cover of Elton John's timely classic "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," complete with Conley jumping back onstage for a vocal assist.

Everyone from that show must have left feeling better for it. Left feeling inspired by the connection and friendship of Mavis, left feeling so a part of something. Brandi is a once-in-a-generation performer. She can make the Grandstand feel like your living room. I’ve seen everything from soup to nuts at the Fair and by God, Brandi is the best thing I’ve ever seen there.

Also, I asked my dad. He said the mascot is a gopher, and his name is Fairchild. I have no comment.

Lydia Liza is a singer-songwriter based in St. Paul. Watch her perform a song in the Sky Ride here.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.