Our Review: Vanessa Carlton at Asylum

vanessa-carlton-libermanDecember 5, 2015 – Entering Asylum to see Vanessa Carlton, I honestly wasn’t sure if I knew exactly what to expect. I knew the show was 21+, that my sister always brought out my inner 14 year-old belting out her music when she played White Houses on road trips, and that every time I heard the opening chords forA Thousand Miles, I wanted to cover my ears to prevent them from getting such a catchy riff stuck in them for weeks on end. Vanessa Carlton has always represented singer-songwriter pop for me. Sure, ear candy, but the kind that your grandma gave you in the little plastic wrappings to keep you quiet while shopping. The kind that you don’t admit that you secretly love, but always gives you that nostalgic warmth when you encounter it. Not necessarily the kind you get excited about, however. Before heading downtown that evening, my surprised roommate said to me, “Well, she certainly is talented,” which I shrugged off as I shut the door.

It has to be said that I underestimated Ms. Carlton completely. As I came in with four friends trailing behind me hoping to have this memory as a joke for later, Carousel was playing. I immediately came out with, “Oh, I forgot how many songs I actually know and like by her.” Going into her next song, “Tall Tales for Spring,” I was given chills. I began to notice the room, which was the most intimate seating I’d ever seen at Asylum. Everyone was quiet, listening intently. The movement of the music was powerful and reminded me of the soundtrack to The Snowman, the late ’80s animated silent film. I surprised myself as I teared up during the breakdown.

Before “White Houses,” Carlton’s storytelling really began to shape the movement of the entire performance. Her personality was genuine and her narrative about her brother’s trauma from the song’s popularity while he was in high school made you love her even more. Hearing the violin (played by Cartlon’s longtime dreamy collaborator, Skye Steele) open this tune just set the stage for the magic to come. Carlton’s featherweight fingers began to swell into the familiar melody, willing the audience to chime in with the third instrument of the composition: the echoing whispers of the lyrics surrounding the room. What a powerful unforgettable moment.

The rest of the set surrounded the newest material by Carlton and Steele, entitled: Liberman, named for her late grandfather’s surname at birth. Before entering into this part of the performance, Carlton explained “Liberman… Lives in it’s own space… a more euphoric territory.” Carlton’s folklore of the album as she moved through it song to song were told as vivid memories that the audience could adopt as their own to set the stage for the music. Her vocals were even more rich and etherial than I remember from her recordings.

My favorite song off the album that was performed was “House of Seven Swords,” named for a tarot deck. Before the song, Carlton explained, “It really showed me how we are each a sword, with two sides to each of our blades. This song is about courage and making choices about your character.” This completely resonated with my mid-twentysomething-year-old self. It began with a cathedral music type intro with the violin bellowing it’s power as her butterfly-on-glass voice sang, “Nobody can tell us how to build our house of seven swords,” in that flutter we all know and secretly love.

This new album mixes some of the same emotionally-entrenched, painterly lyrics, with the classical sound of her piano and Steele’s violin, with a more modern twist. A touch of electronic loops, light reverb and a consistent bass drum beat at a more dimensional shape to the new material. It’s Vanessa Carlton all grown up. She’s a vivacious person, a well-rounded performer, a storyteller, and a true artist in how she thinks about every part of her work and her collaboration, not only with Steele, but with the audience as well.

I didn’t cover my ears or escaped when “A Thousand Miles” was played after the loudest cheers in the room all night ended an elaborate story about how Carlton left ballet, and wrote the song. Instead I danced and sang the whole thing, then I escaped for a moment to contemplate, while she played her “Pretend we left the stage already and came back for an encore” finale: “The Marching Horn,” dedicated to those who have lost someone close to them.

Some graffiti in the building read, “What did you do to end patriarchy today?” I left with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. I saw the wonderful woman, Vanessa Carlton grace our beautiful city with her moving performance. And I am so grateful.


  • Carousel
  • Tall Tales for Spring
  • White Houses
  • Take It Easy
  • Willow
  • House of Seven Swords
  • Operator
  • Blue Pool
  • Nothing Where Something Used to Be
  • Sinners in the Sea
  • A Thousand Miles
  • Hear the Bells
  • The Marching Horn

Please note: We received free admission in exchange for this review.

Who was Johnny Fountain?

Photo by Stephen Quirk, May 2009

This past Monday, Portland suffered a huge loss in the peaceful passing of our bright light and good friend, Johnny Fountain. You may remember him from his stunning performance at Arootsakoostik South this past summer, or his small, equally-powerful performance during the first night The Couch returned to Empire. Maybe you were his friend and made memories with him going on outdoor adventures, playing music, and spreading kindness and love through fun and lighthearted jokes. Maybe he was your bartender at the old Empire before it reopened. Maybe he walked you safely to your car, or saved you from getting creepily hit on. Maybe he introduced you to the love of your life. Maybe you loved him. Maybe, like me, you first saw him perform with the Panda Bandits on an amazingly fun night. Maybe you used to hear him play overhead at the First Friday Artwalk in the early days. Maybe you read his brave and honest Facebook posts about his ongoing battle with cancer. Maybe you attended a fundraiser to help him on his journey. Maybe you are just a friend of a friend who is grieving. In any case, if you have any involvement with the vibrantly rich music scene in our town, you have felt Jonny’s presence. While he’s passed beyond the rainbow bridge, you will probably still feel it in all of those that knew him, who will continue on in his legacy.

For those wanting to pay their respects, there will be a Songs and Stories Memorial for loved ones at Empire on Sunday, December 13 from 4-7PM*.

*Correction: It was previously stated that the Songs and Stories Memorial  would occur from 1-4PM instead of 4-7pm.

Marrow at One Longfellow Square

Photo by Savanna Pettengill
Photo by Savanna Pettengill

November 2, 2015 – The Chicago based four-piece Marrow graced the stage at a quiet One Longfellow Square (OLS) tonight, bringing quite a vivacious energy to the room. The group impressed everyone upon first strum, first hooking them in with harmonies and rhythms touching upon the quieter hits of The Beatles, Broken Social Scene’s self-titled album and early days of The White Stripes. The whole performance was dynamic, not just number to number, but down to every change in each song. The jazzy pop-rock energies entranced the audience for the entire set.

The fresh-faced foursome are touring to promote their newest album The Gold Standard. As always, the sound at OLS was on point. I was almost disappointed to come home to study flat Marrow recordings from my tiny earbud headphones, although happy to have just witnessed such a flawless act of musical performance in a suitable room for the sound. Despite playing for around 30 people, the group brought their best efforts, quirkily confident sense of humor, and natural chemistry.


My favorite song during the performance was probably “She Chose You.” Liam Cunningham’s lead on this piece put your feet and heart in a happy place, combined with Lane Beckstrom’s California-sunshine bass line and Matt Carroll’s peppy kick drum. Macie Stewart’s buttery back-up vocals sang while multi-tasking both keys and guitar on this piece were impressive. Although it’s the harmonies between all four members that really got me. Everyone played their part fervently, and most importantly brought the fun. As I watched people dancing in the audience to the tune I nostalgically and affectionately pictured this playing during a make-up, make-out scene between Seth and Summer in an episode of The O.C.

Other influences that came to mind during Marrow’s performance were Sleeter Kinney, No Doubt, Dr. Dog, Ben Folds, The Eels and Elvis Costello. Still the arrangements and subdued yet awesome stage presence were unlike any I’ve seen. The 45-minute set flew by all too quickly. Luckily for me, and for those of you who weren’t at the show (now kicking yourselves wishing you were), Cunningham closed the night with a message to the people of Portland. “I promise, I don’t know when, but we’ll be back.” Here’s hoping.

Cam Jones and Sonia Sturino’s (of The Box Tiger) newest project, Weakened Friends, rightfully opened the night with their first performance at OLS. The show was also kicking off a Northeast tour and, sadly, their last performance in Portland for the foreseeable future.

I’d love to see a pairing of Marrow with locals Coke Weed and/or Big Blood, and maybe invite Boston up-and-comers Bent Knee for a killer night at any of the medium-sized, great-sounding rooms in Portland. Now that would be a show not to miss.

Please note: We received free admission in exchange for this review.