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Brandi Carlile: In the Canyon Haze – Live From Laurel Canyon

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Man, I don’t know what it is, but people still just can’t get enough of Laurel Canyon. It’s been covered in music documentaries and tribute concerts and just when you think we’ve moved on, something new comes along. Brandi Carlile is the latest creative trying to rustle up the spirits of singer-songwriters past, releasing the 2022 album In The Canyon Haze, itself an acoustic re-recording of tracks off 2021’s In These Silent Days, and performing it via livestream at select IMAX theaters on the day of its release. The performance, Brandi Carlile: In the Canyon Haze – Live from Laurel Canyon, premiered on MAX this week, where it is currently streaming.   

To review, in the 1960s, assorted rock and pop musicians moved to the hills above Los Angeles to the artists community of Laurel Canyon, lured by the beautiful rural setting and easy access to Hollywood and the Sunset Strip. Acoustic guitars were strummed, copious amounts of marijuana was smoked, and affairs were had. The area played an outsize role in the birth of the singer-songwriter movement as it was home to Joni Mitchell and the members of Crosby, Stills & Nash, among others.    

Before the concert gets underway we see such familiar visual cues as classic cars and winding roads as Carlile heads up Laurel Canyon Boulevard. The staging is as beautiful as the producers must have hoped it would be when the idea was first pitched, with Carlile and her band performing on a cliffside and the City of Los Angeles in the distance. Shot at twilight, the sky darkens throughout the hour and a half performance, taking us from the literal haze of the afternoon through sunset and ending at night.  

As she takes the stage, Carlile notes the terrifying high stakes of capturing a live  performance for posterity. Though mistakes are forgiven in the heat of performance, here they’ll be captured forever. She talks about the area’s legacy of “strange trippy Americana music“ before name-checking the usual laundry list of artists who made “the Canyon” famous. Brandi says that despite Americana‘s Southern roots, it has strong ties to California as well (Ackchyually, so does country, from the “Bakersfield sound” of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard to pioneering country rockers The Flying Burrito Brothers). “We’re here to conjure the spirits of the living legends, and the ones that have gone before us from Laurel Canyon,” she says. It’s kind of cringe but said with the best of intentions. 

Brandi Carlile: In the Canyon Haze - Live from Laurel Canyon
Photo: HBO

One thing that always stands out about Carlile, is that besides her often-breathtakingly emotive singing and top-tier songwriting, she’s one heck of a finger picker. Wearing a tiny parlor guitar and a turquoise power suit, she’s every inch the front person. Her backing band includes longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth, backup singers, and a small string section featuring the SistaStrings. They provide admirable and intimate musical support to her songbook, which goes from country to balladry to rockers. 

An early emotional highpoint is when wife Catherine Carlile née Shepard joins Brandi on guitar and vocals to perform the song “You and Me on the Rock.” “I wrote this song about you, and it’s been my dream to get you to sing it with me,” Brandi says. Catherine seems nervous but promises “not to get drunk and sing Lady Gaga later“ at her wife’s request. 

After leaving the performance area, Catherine mans a phone bank, taking questions from callers and relaying them to Brandi on an old rotary phone. Fun fact: when asked whose Laurel Canyon hippie pad she would visit first, Carlile says Mama Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas. It’s a good choice considering Elliot’s home was often where visiting rock dignitaries from overseas crossed paths with the Canyon elite. 

Other fans ask about Carlile’s activism and advocacy for LGBTQ rights, about her spirituality and the various legislative threats against women and the gay community in recent years. Carlile soaks in the questions before responding, providing insights that speak to her character and thoughtfulness. She says that though the fight for justice is hard it’s important not to let it harden you.     

As the show goes on, the performance gets more boisterous. By the time of “Broken Horses,” the band is genuinely rocking with vigorously strummed acoustic guitars and kinetic drumming. Carlile is a gracious host and bandleader, giving in-depth explanations of the songs and loving introductions to her bandmates. Electric guitars come out in time for David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity.” It’s a good version even if I can think of 49 other Bowie songs I’d rather hear covered. A fan phone’s in to request Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” for the final song. It starts out mournfully before building to a crescendo of distorted guitars.  

Brandi Carlile: In the Canyon Haze – Live From Laurel Canyon will surely please fans and cements Carliles’s standing as one of the most significant artists of the moment. By paying lip service to the area’s legacy, she draws a line from the groundbreaking singer-songwriters of the past to her own sense of destiny. Ultimately, however, the setting only really matters because of the beautiful backdrop it affords, which is why people moved there in the first place. 

Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.