I didn't lose any loved ones to Covid, but live music was a Covid-era casualty that messed me up bad. A "slow reopening" was cold comfort; I hate outdoor music venues, and with the exceptions of Halloween and fetish balls, nothing sucks the fun out of almost anything more than a face mask. I remain resentful that bars, restaurants, theaters, and concert venues keep different and often contradictory policies around all this and I've stopped trying to make sense of it. But the experience of live performance, without a multi-check Covid screening protocol and a smothering of polypropylene fiber, was one that couldn't come back fast enough.
It made perfect sense that my re-entry into the world of live music—gleefully unmasked and with a drink in hand, no less—happened to come by way of Carsie Blanton, who gave us one of the finest and eminently relevant albums to come out of the Covid era, Love & Rage.
Unfamiliar with Carsie Blanton & Her Handsome Band? The good news: she's several albums in, so quality binge-listening awaits. They also happen to be currently on tour across the US, Ireland, and the UK in celebration of her newest release, Body of Work, and may be coming to a venue near you.
She's earnest. She's hilarious. She's a gal who's never been afraid to speak her truth. She's a prolific, tried and true folkie ("American Kid"), has a penchant for old school jazz ("Heavenly Thing"), she can wield the energy of the great power pop bands of the early '80s ("Shit List"), evoke the sultry spirit of the legendry Atlantic recordings of the '60s and '70s ("That Boy"), and successfully pushes her own boundaries ("Be So Bad"). If you can handle an intense talent, some full-throttle charm, and a serious dose of toe-tappin' fist-pumping activism, get ready to fall in love.
NPR's Fresh Air says the Southern-born, Philly-based singer-songwriter "delivers every song with an equal dose of moxie and mischief, bringing her audience together in joyful celebration of everything worth fighting for." True, but her setlist jumps from cheerful, anti-fascist anthems and ebullient protest songs, to unapologetic disclosures about falling for—or occasionally indulging in—the wrong men, to an address to a Facebook hater, to insightful reckonings of prevailing Americana and the last few insane years of US history, with selections from The Great American Songbook tossed in for good measure. And only Ms. Blanton can set a harangue to Senator Joe Manchin to music (a song she performed before an audience at The Kennedy Center where Manchin was in attendance) and still keep it fun and earwormy, which for her, is entirely the point. It's not easy to be both genuinely subversive and balls-out fun. On that note, Carsie scores an A+.
After more than two years of live music starvation, Carsie Blanton and her Handsome Band felt like an all-you-can-eat buffet. They're a tight triad of three stellar talents: keyboardist Patrick Firth brings more music to his fingertips than ten digits should allow, and the discreetly-mohawked bassist Joe Plowman (who also serves as musical director and occasional co-songwriter), toggles between electric and stand up with a cool virtuosity that stops just short of a sex act.
It's interesting to me that Blanton has cited Nina Simone as one of her influences. The similarities aren't immediately evident, but the two do share a lot in common. Both artists are lyrical revolutionaries who can serve their music with justified, righteous rage without killing the beauty of their art form. They both bring a genuine vulnerability and a bona fide toughness to what they do, delivered with a voice that transcends talent. And, like Nina Simone, my guess is that Carsie's a woman who doesn't scare very easily—and if push came to shove, she probably wouldn't stop short of setting shit on fire.
A Playlist You Won't Regret: