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There weren’t many oldsters at Sara Bareilles’ solo show Tuesday at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre, where the instant-sellout audience was predominantly collegiate and female. But if the graying set ever got a chance to hear how she comes off in a bandless setting, they’d be adopting her as a poster child for the “occasionally they do make ‘em like they used to” cause. This no-accompaniment concert made a strong case that the only thing keeping Bareilles from being seen as a key heir to the great singer-songwriter tradition of the 1970s is overproduction.
Bareilles kicked off the show with a medley combining her own “Love on the Rocks” with Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” and closed it with a cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” so spine-tingling that — blasphemous as this might seem — it might eclipse any rendering of it that Elton himself has ever done. In-between, she did a mid-set cover of “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” that brilliantly highlighted the song’s effusive lonesomeness. If the judges on The Voice or Idol can fake surprised glee as they gush over run-of-the-mill talents, you can only imagine the looks on their faces if a youthful interpreter as skilled and soulful as Bareilles were ever put in front of them.
Of course, it’s her original material that had fans snapping up tickets for this solo tour in a matter of minutes, and Bareilles is no slouch in that department, either — even if her inspirational new single, “Brave,” isn’t necessarily the one you’d choose to make the best case for her songwriting chops. “Love Song,” her 2007 breakout, remains as catchy a pop song as the 21st century has produced, with its ideal blend of hooky coloratura and conversational lyrics. That one works equally well with or without a band, since in either case the rhythmic emphasis remains on her Ben Folds-like quarter notes on the keyboard (worth noting: Folds himself was in attendance). Some of her other more poppy material, like “Uncharted,” “King of Anything,” and even “Brave,” came off better in concert, sans the bells and whistles that producers have added to convince radio that she’s not a one-trick piano woman.
Proving that herself in concert, she took a break from the ivories to play blues-rock guitar on “Come Round Soon” and drone-y harmonium on the second half of “Once Upon Another Time,” which began with a lengthy a cappella section in which Bareilles was accompanied only by the El Rey’s bartenders. The latter song, a lost-youth lament from a Ben Folds-produced EP she released last year, indicated that success hasn’t put a crimp in her ambitions to come up with some emotionally rich, Top 40-unfriendly material amid the hits.
Perhaps the best indication that her heart remains in the right place was her explanation that she has refrained from recording one songs she’s been performing for a good while, “I Just Want You,” because she wants to keep it as a love song directly expressly to her live audiences. How many singer-songwriters would keep themselves from cutting a song that good just so they could give the fans at live shows a heartfelt exclusive? The fact that this song is one of the best showcases for her magnificent voice, rising from a folkie purr to a full-on powerhouse vibrato and back again, was icing on the concert cake.
But just about everything felt like a lead-up to her climactic rendition of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which began and ended with Bareilles introducing the portent of some minor chords into Sir Elton’s ostensibly cheerful melody, a melancholia that bookended some sustained, jubilant wailing that brought the house and certainly anyone’s defenses down. I haven’t heard a more stirring and subtly imaginative cover of a classic rock song in concert in years.
Bareilles puts forth a somewhat earnest image, between having the kind of classic voice that begs un-ironic appreciation and her tendency to write some material that’s as straight-forward as “Brave,” an anthem for underdogs that seems aimed at the younger portion of her audience. So it came as some surprise to the casual fan to find that, in concert, her persona is a little more Sarah Silverman than it is Sarah McLachlan. Leading a sing-along on the bridge of “Love Song,” she said, “You know this part? They didn’t play this part on the radio (edit). F—ers.” She irreverently described a previous audience in Vancouver as “Lesbianopolis.” And after noting that she’s realized the chords to her “Let the Rain” were “the same chords” as those of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” she performed them as a medley. It’s a somewhat well-kept secret that she’s actually a gifted, and highly profane, comedienne.
But maybe not as well-kept as the secret that she’s got a lot of Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell in her for a pop star in the 2010s. Her albums help maintain that clandestine identity, to some extent; it was possible to come out of this show enraptured, put on one of her CDs, and feel a tad disappointed at how the studio has diminished her. When she hits the road again after her new album comes out, it will be in larger venues, naturally, with a full band. But if you closed your eyes, you could imagine this solo set working just as well drifting up toward the trees at the Greek Theatre… and even inspiring some post-collegiate guys to recognize her gifts.
Love on the Rocks/Bennie and the Jets
(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay
Bright Lights and Cityscapes
Let the Rain
I Just Want You
Come Round Soon
Once Upon Another Time
King of Anything
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
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