So much happened in the 20 months (minus one day) between when Carsie Blanton and her band were supposed to headline World Cafe Live and when they finally took the stage—life and death, wins and losses, love and rage—but somehow they captured it all in their 19-song, 90-minute set.
More than a third of the show was dedicated to songs from Love & Rage, the album that Blanton, bassist Joe Plowman and keyboardist Patrick Firth made after COVID-19 scrubbed their plans, starting it while holed up together in Philadelphia and then traveling across the country to wrap it up in Los Angeles, with dozens of other musicians pitching in from a distance.
Love and rage are intertwined in Blanton’s swinging pop tunes, from “Down In The Streets” (a valentine to 2020’s protests) to “So Long, New Orleans” (the farewell she penned to the town she’d left Philly for, before she even really knew she was moving on yet again). “All My Love,” “Party At The End Of The World” and “Be Good” have a clear through line: Our relationships, our planet and our pursuit of justice may well be doomed, but we’ve got to give them all we’ve got anyway. That might sound like a downer, but in Blanton’s hands, it’s jazzy and fizzy and fun, the very embodiment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s advice to fight for things you care about in a way that leads others to join you.
You could hear it in how Blanton enlisted the sold-out crowd in the sing-along chorus of “Shit List,” a hook-laden middle finger to white-male mediocrity fueled by the shock and dismay she felt when white supremacists marched with tiki torches through Charlottesville, the closest big city to her childhood hometown of Luray, Va. Dedicating it to all the Nazis, neo-Nazis, Proud Boys and Kyle Rittenhouses—and the judges and juries that protect them—she carved out space to feel all the frustration and hopelessness the moment demands, resist the urge to tune out and come together to do something about it.
Blanton’s songs of love and rage didn’t start with Love & Rage, and they won’t end there, either. With “American Kid,” from her previous album, 2019’s Buck Up, she outlined a common trajectory for a political awakening—yep, a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States was involved—and acknowledged it’s a lifelong process. Recounting how the newest song she played, “Dealin’ With The Devil,” started with a handsome scoundrel, incorporated Mitch McConnell and culminated with Joe Manchin—and then how she seized the opportunity to play it for the West Virginia obstructionist himself during her appearance on Mountain Stage—Blanton proved she’s here for the long haul.
Dipping into parallel preoccupations, Blanton paired the mischievous “Smoke Alarm” from 2012’s Idiot Heart) with the more grown-up “Desire” (from Buck Up), crediting them to the cocktail of lust and mortality she drank up during her years in New Orleans. Lust and love are close enough that songs like “Jacket” (which rhymes with “whack it”) and “Harbor” fit like second skin, the deceptively light “So Ferocious” bridged the gap between love and rage, and “Fat And Happy” masked its anger with a smile that so many women wear all too easily.
Unsurprisingly, a heavier dose of mortality was to be found in a couple of pandemic-era tunes, “When Somebody’s Gone” (which bears the weight of all the lives lost in the past couple years, giving into grief while steering clear of the maudlin) and “Fishin’ With You” (a sprightly ode to John Prine).
Whatever the tempo, whatever the mood, Blanton’s buoyant voice and her gift for crafting sly rhymes and memorable melodies is perfectly suited for the occasion.
Philly singer/songwriter Chris Kasper, joined by Kiley Ryan on fiddle and mandolin, opened with an evocative cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” before focusing on songs from his new EP, Stowaways, Vol. 1, including the crowd-pleasing “Coffee & Weed” and “No Reservations.”
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich