Last Friday night at the Ark, it was clear what song Vanessa Carlton was going to open with even before she started playing it. She said that she was going to perform this one first — “just to let this ship sail” — and immediately people in the audience started clapping and cheering, knowing that Carlton’s 2002 hit, “A Thousand Miles,” was about to follow.
Some artists will save their most popular songs for later in the show, just to keep the audience guessing, but I admired Carlton’s approach, getting it out of the way. It actually cleared the air and allowed her to go full speed ahead with performances of some of her more recent work, a lot of which I personally found more musically interesting than “A Thousand Miles.”
Carlton has an organic voice that comes across as sharp and sweet at the same time. It’s melodic and smooth, but it also can have a bit of an edge, and her range is nothing to question, either. Listening to her unique voice, it sounded like it was coming less from any strong outer influences, and more from years of her own personal experience crafting it. Add to that her distinctive songwriting and piano-playing skills, and it isn’t hard to tell why so many of the people at the Ark that night were so excited to see her. A couple of them called out requests at different times, and just from listening to some of the things the people around me were saying, I could tell that many of them were serious about Carlton. Some had driven to Ann Arbor from out of town to see her perform, and many had already seen her shows in the past.
After “A Thousand Miles,” Carlton did a few more songs that the crowd recognized and applauded — “Carousel,” “Fairweather Friend” — before moving into work from her newest album, Liberman. According to Carlton, the album was named after her family’s original surname, which was changed by her grandfather earlier in the twentieth century. While she was performing these songs, she had a painting of her grandfather’s projected onto the wall behind her, featuring three women dancing in what looks like a sort of ritual. The women were all based on the same model, which inspired Carlton, as she said it looked like the woman was “in a ritual with herself.”
It was interesting to hear the stories that Carlton would tell to introduce each song. In addition to her family’s history with the name Liberman, she had songs that referenced or addressed people in her life, such as an ex (“Fairweather Friend”), her daughter Sidney (“River”), and her husband (“I Don’t Want to Be a Bride”). One song, “Annie,” was dedicated to a young girl Carlton met through the Make-a-Wish Foundation many years ago, who since then has continued to battle cancer and recently celebrated her quinceanera.
Carlton also used some of her songs to focus on current social and political issues. She dedicated her performance of “Who’s To Say” to “all of us, because we’re all human beings,” but prefaced it with an address to anyone in the LGBTQ community, which seemed to resonate with a lot of the people in the crowd. Later on in the night, she performed another song, “Marching Line,” in memory of last year’s Paris attack. It was clear, both from the song itself and from the way that Carlton was talking about it, that this was an event that had greatly affected her emotionally, and she referred to art as a “church” and a “sacred space” that people could use to try to somehow come to terms with even the most devastating events.
Carlton’s accompanying instrumentalist took some of these social concerns into a place of action at the end of the show. He announced to the audience before the last song that while Carlton was signing merchandise, he would be sitting at a table with stamped, ready-to-go postcards that audience members could address to their representatives. He had printed out the addresses of Governor Rick Snyder (R-MI), US Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and US Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), along with many of their stances on political issues, such as the environment and same-sex marriage. Many audience members took him up on this after the show, including myself. Throughout the show, he had been a terrific talent, switching easily and often between instruments like the violin and the guitar, and it was refreshing to see him and Carlton using their artistic platform to propel people toward concrete changes. It’s one thing to suggest that people write to their representatives, but it’s another thing to print out those representatives’ information and put stamped postcards and pens in people’s hands.
Rather than leaving the stage at the end and then coming back out for an encore, Carlton simply stayed out, telling the audience beforehand that this would be their last song. I had never really seen that done at a concert before, and it struck me as fitting that Carlton was finishing her show on the same note that she had started it: She was refreshingly honest, and to the benefit of both herself and her audience, she was doing this her own way.