Local Current Blog

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

Brandi Carlile. (Photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR)

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 mascot’s 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.

  • Kitty Kat

    What an amazing show, between Mavis and Brandi felt like we were in church. Touching, I had a little four-year-old girl sitting next to me with her ear muffs on belting out the words to every Brandi Carlile song it was a night of such community it was sad it had to end.

  • MNmusicfan

    Thanks for a great review! This was much my 8th Brandi Show and one I’ll never forget!
    Her energy and love for her Minnesota fans helped make this one of the best BC shows I’ve seen so far (well except for maybe one of her Symphony Shows 🥰). Her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” was so crazy good! Probably the only time I’ve heard an artist do it justice besides our beloved Prince Rogers Nelson 💜. She also performed it last Nov on night one of her State Theatre Show, but she outdid that performance last night for sure.
    I loved hearing Brandi’s stories about Joni Mitchell. I attended the movie theatre screening of Joni Mitchell’s 75th Birthday Tribute earlier this year, so it was super fun to hear Brandi share the scoop about her budding friendship and fan adoration of Joni.
    I feel so fortunate to have seen Brandi perform in smaller more intimate venues over the years, but I think that may be a thing of the past as she soars into super stardom!

    • Jennifer OConnor

      Couldn’t agree with you more MNmusicfan! She is so alive and there’s not too many things more powerful in this world than great live music. How uplifting and special.

    • nanneroftheisland

      Completely agree with your review. Brandi is a force and an American treasure who, I believe, will stand the same ground with her idols. My first encounter was her opening act for Shawn Colvin at The O’Shaughnessy about 15 years ago. I was awestruck with her talent and stage command that I had to meet her between sets. She sat alone at her merch table, and when I thanked her for her generous gift of song, she grabbed my hands and thanked me for my appreciation. I knew then that this was an artist destined for great things. It’s so heartwarming to see how far she’s come and yet how grounded she remains.

  • Melanie Ueland

    Great review! Mavis is a national treasure and Brandi a force of nature. Or is it the other way around??? My husband and I met Savannah after the show, and she was darling as well. A fantastic night of music at the Fair!

  • Lori Steiner

    I have been following her for years, as she’s a hometown girl. I’ve seen her several times and she never disappoints