Sara Bareilles Dedicates Song to Robin Williams, Puts on 'Brave' Face at the Greek: Concert Review
Anyone feeling soul-sick at the end of a day spent mulling Robin Williams’ suicide couldn’t have found a more balm-like gig to end up at than Sara Bareilles’ show Monday night at the Greek. Bareilles seemed as likely as any performer could to at least acknowledge the tragedy, since her catalog has its share of cloudy moments. Just as you would’ve hoped, the singer found an appropriate moment to invoke what was weighing on everyone’s minds, dedicating “Hercules” — a song that sprang out of her own most depressed period — to Williams’ family.
“This is my darkest hour,” she sang, in the middle of what was unmistakably her show’s darkest four and a half minutes. Even if she’d skipped that dedication, though, the Greek still would have been the optimal landing point for any melancholics on Monday, since her current tour is about as close as you’re going to get to a secular healing service.
Bareilles’ most recent album, 2013’s The Blessed Unrest, included its share of downbeat moments but also found the performer trying on a new role, as a singer of outrightly inspirational anthems, several of which were cornerstones of Monday’s show. When The Blessed Unrest first came out, I confess, I found “Brave” and “I Wanna Be Like Me” to be a little too message-y for their own good, and a cut below her more confessional material. But having seen how “Brave” has taken on a life of its own over the past year as a real flag-waver for underdog causes, I’m far less inclined to devalue it. By the time she ended the main part of her set with it Monday, it felt like the gospel song we all needed to hear.
The singer was exhibiting a bit of courage herself, just by playing L.A. the night after Paul McCartney put on a superior stadium show that was probably attended by a good chunk of her sold-out amphitheater audience. Bareilles is not going to fill his Beatle-boots, but if you go for that kind of classicism, you won’t find any pop performer under 40 who better exemplifies the full-package tradition: phenomenal voice, serious multi-instrumental chops, and the ability to write what sound like instant standards. She also swears like a sailor on stage, with a feisty sense of humor that probably puts her closer to Billy Joel’s camp, as profanely funny classic-rock storytellers go. (“As much as I like you telling us how good we are, shut the f— up,” went one characteristic remark, setting up an a cappella closer.)
Last year at this time, it wasn’t altogether clear that she could have headlined the Greek, and so she passed through the same house on a co-headlining tour with One Republic that effectively had her playing second banana to a less accomplished act. Yet, somehow, “Brave” had its weird life — coming out and more or less stiffing as a single, then getting a minor run of attention because of the Katy Perry/”Roar” similarities, then finally becoming ubiquitous on its own merits. And here she was back, filling the back rows without Ryan Tedder and company as a failsafe, seeming as if to the amphitheater manner born, which is an odd place to wind up for someone who spent so much of her life behind a baby grand.
As superb as Bareilles can be in her Laura Nyro/Carole King mode, it’s a little surprising — and maybe disconcerting, but only for a minute — to see how good she is at being a modern pop star, too. For much of her current show, she’s either standing up at the piano or abandoning it to work the crowd across the lip of the stage. The slightly tomboyish hat of her erstwhile trademark persona is gone, replaced by a glam look that includes the “Little Black Dress” named in the opening number — albeit a little black leather number. She’s gifted enough to have it both ways, moving from a solo ballad, “Manhattan,” that sounds like it could have been lifted right out of the Great American Songbook, into as electronically enhanced a dance-off as “Eden.”
She explained one transition in thinking in introducing one of the newer songs. A fan from Boston, she said, had told her that he’d wanted to include a song of hers in his wedding but they couldn’t because the material was all too depressing. “You’re not wrong,” she claimed she told him, “but f— you, anyway.” Bareilles’ true response was to cave and write “I Choose You,” a wedding song if ever there was one. You could call it a sell-out, or just an affirmation that, just like the cancer victims and sexually closeted types she alludes to in her other anthems, lovebirds need to be brave, too.
Real musical courage came in again after the encore call. A white sheet draped off the instruments as Bareilles emerged with the three female members of her band (who otherwise played violin, cello, and electronic keyboards) joining her for sublime a cappella four-part harmonies… a format possibly inspired by the season she spent judging The Sing-Off? The song was “Bright Lights and Cityscapes,” and the theme was staking a claim in a romantic triangle for being the better other woman. That’s a claim that’s hard to deny, in the pop sphere right now, if nowhere else.
The most YouTube-able moment of this tour is a new song called “She Used to Be Mine” — unreleased because it was written for a Broadway show she’s working on, an adaptation of the 2007 film Waitress. The ballad sure sounded like a future Tony Awards performance moment, leaving you to imagine that the biggest challenge the show’s producers face is finding a theater actress who can sing Bareilles’ material with as much heart, soul, and even belting power as she does. Let’s hope the tribulations of getting a Broadway musical mounted don’t lead to a new round of depression for Bareilles to write about.
Little Black Dress
I Wanna Be Like Me
Love On The Rocks
Come Round Soon
She Used to Be Mine
Gonna Get Over You
Chasing The Sun
I Choose You
King Of Anything
Bright Lights and Cityscapes