Vanessa Carlton performs nostalgic favorites and pandemic album tracks in Homer

Vanessa Carlton performs nostalgic favorites and pandemic album tracks

Review: The singer-songwriter played fan favorites from the early 2000s along with new material from her latest album.
Published: March 14, 2023
Vanessa Carlton
Vanessa Carlton took the stage on March 8 at Homer's small and intimate Center for the Arts.

When Vanessa Carlton hobbled onto the stage Wednesday night at Homer’s Center for the Arts, there were cheers and claps and a little commotion of concern for the singer-songwriter making her way to the piano bench on crutches. Was this really the woman who proclaimed she’d walk a thousand miles? Unfazed by her broken foot, Carlton’s first words in the microphone were, “The show must go on. Let’s let this cat out of the bag.” And there it was — the twinkling ditty of “A Thousand Miles.”

If that was the only song you came for, you could’ve just grabbed your coat and gone home after that. But the “Future Pain Tour: An Evening With Vanessa Carlton” had much more in store than the songs she released in 2002.

Inside the cozy 400-seat theater (built in 1893 and once home to Homer’s first Baptist church), deep blue and fuchsia lights lit up the space and set the tone for the acoustic show to come. Carlton performed an anthology setlist of fan favorites and deep cuts spanning her two-decade career, prefacing each song with humorous commentary and a glimpse into the experiences and relationships that shaped her music.

Now 42 years old, much has happened since Carlton’s last United States headline tour five years ago. She debuted on Broadway portraying Carol King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, released her 2021 album Love Is an Art, toured with Stevie Nicks, and even spent a year substitute teaching at her daughter’s school.

“The kids called me Ms. Vanilla,” Carlton said. Recounting her brief stint in K-3 classrooms, she said we all need to be thanking teachers more and summarized her own experience in just three words — “Holy Dear God.” Although teaching may not necessarily be her calling, Carlton’s songwriting certainly has a way of encouraging people to learn through listening.

Ahead of “Hear the Bells,” Carlton spoke candidly about her struggles with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), search for effective treatment and road to recovery. By suggestion from an apothecary in New York City’s Chinatown, Carlton said she boiled pungent herbs to make tea every day for a year until her PCOS symptoms were eliminated. Setting her story to music, Carlton composed a delicate, haunting song with bright, bell-like octaves in the piano, signaling a reminder to listen to what your body needs.

It’s hard to imagine the image or sound of Carlton without a piano. Her fingers dance across the keys and strike chords with a sensitive sort of strength, making simultaneous singing and playing of intricate melodies look easy. But Carlton reminded the crowd that she had to really work at it to sound like “real songwriters” who made it big on the radio.

“It was 1996, and I was sixteen and a half….” Carlton started as if reciting a tall tale. She invited the audience into a flashback of student life at New York City’s School of American Ballet when she was going through a tough time and frequently skipped classes to write soaring, uplifting songs like “Ordinary Day.”

Without a full backing band, it didn’t feel as full as it could have, nor did some of the Kate Bush-sounding songs from Love Is an Art. Plus, this meant the setlist didn’t allow space for Carlton’s more percussive tracks like “Sway” or “Nolita Fairytale.” However, Isabel Castellvi, Carlton’s touring cellist and bass player, provided just enough accompaniment to expertly tie up loose ends.

Nearing the concert’s end, Carlton glanced at her crutches on the floor and said, “This is the part of the show where I would’ve walked offstage and come back for an encore.” Instead, the crowd cheered her on with a louder, longer applause as Carlton closed the show with “Blue Pool,” “Love Is an Art” and “Who’s to Say,” a dedication to communities targeted by anti-LGBTQ bills sweeping several states.

Inspiring as that was, Carlton still hoped to send fans off in good spirits. So at the end of the night, she stuck around to sign autographs and say thanks to her newer listeners as well as the ones who never left her side all these years (and miles) later.