Vanessa Carlton Kickstarts Revived Ludlow Garage

The history of the Ludlow Garage building on its own justifies the opening of a new music venue in the space. During the Garage’s lightning-quick sixteen month run from 1969 to 1971, it played host to everyone from the Allman Brothers (who recorded a live album there) to The Kinks to B.B. King to Iggy and the Stooges before closing down with a bill topped by Captain Beefheart. It was a short flash in the city’s long musical past, but it left an indelible mark and started founder Jim Tarbell’s long career as one of Cincinnati’s great modern icons. 

So there was, unsurprisingly, much rejoicing when it was announced that the venue would be revived following last year’s closing of the Olives restaurant that took up much of the space. And then some trepidation, as the renderings showed a strange L-shaped room with the stage at the bend, the two halves of the audience blocked off from each other by structural walls. But with one near-capacity show under their belts, let me say definitively: the room (mostly) works and adds a unique new space to Cincinnati’s concert landscape.

The hall is located in the building’s basement, and upon entering one is met with shiny hardwood floors and freshly painted walls. Permanent seats have yet to be installed (“they’re on the slow boat from China, literally,” mused owner Scott Crawford), but the temporary chairs gave a good sense of the eventual layout. Waiters with tablets came down the aisles taking drink orders from an extensive (and expensive) menu, a pleasant service during intermissions but ultimately a bit distracting once the show was underway. The split audience is indeed a bit odd, but the effect is no different than sitting side-stage at an arena show, and all of the seats in that section are practically on top of the performers. The sound was mostly impeccable, and after a bit of tweaking the banks of LED spotlights gave a nice atmosphere. The promised intimacy is no joke; total capacity is barely over 250 and the farthest seat is sixteen rows back of the stage, less than sixty feet away. As long as they stick to quieter, acoustic shows (as they currently plan to do), Live at the Ludlow Garage is a slam dunk.

Nashville-via-New York singer Vanessa Carlton was a crucial part of the evening’s success, and it was a new beginning for her as well. Last night marked the first date of her tour for the critically-acclaimed creative left turn Liberman. Carlton is still best-known for her catchy 2002 megahit “A Thousand Miles,” a song which helped her go platinum with her debut Be Not Nobody back when that was an achievable feat and which has also loomed over the rest of her career, for better and for worse. It made its obligatory appearance in the setlist on Thursday night, but not until Carlton and violinist Skye Steele had taken the crowd on an impressive journey down every other side alley she’s explored since its release. Much of the set was dedicated to Liberman, out just last week, and its predecessor Rabbits on the Run, and she smartly segregated the seven selections from the former to a single block in the middle. Liberman is its own world, sonically and lyrically different from her prior work, with influences ranging, by her telling, from her grandfather’s art to her recent motherhood to a Peyote trip in Mexico a couple of years ago.

For these selections, the piano and violin were supported by pre-recorded backing tracks triggered from a laptop stage left by Steele. For the most part, this was an excellent addition, beefing up the sparser sound of the duo and helping realize the full vision of the record. It felt a bit phony in the rare moments where live drums swelled up from beneath the electronic blips and soundscapes, but that’s a forgivable offense for artists trying to jam econo. Mostly, Carlton’s miraculous voice and dextrous piano playing carried the evening. The slow-burning “Take It Easy” had the mostly-unfamiliar crowd enraptured, and “Willows” gained an extended intro to let Steele build some atmosphere. These are mature, wisened, welcoming songs that represent more a new milestone for Carlton than a comeback, and point to an exciting new direction.

But of course the set, rightly, found its way to “A Thousand Miles.” Before starting into the unmistakable piano melody, Carlton mused on a recent press clipping which remarked on the new album’s dissimilarity to her early work. “I wrote this song when I was 16,” she said. “Now I’m 35.” “A Thousand Miles” would be a stone-cold pop classic regardless of her age at its creation, but it’s all the more remarkable for that fact. Cellphone cameras glowed throughout the room as she wrapped her voice around its yearning verses, but the the rabid ovation that followed abated quickly, and in an awkward moment much of the audience had stood up to exit when Carlton reentered from the stage door. “Didn’t you notice my leather jacket was still sitting on the stool? I wasn’t going to leave without it.” She treated us to a pair of Rabbit’s on the Run tracks, a twinkling omnichord arrangement “Get Good” and the parting “The Marching Line.” This marks the beginning of a new chapter for Carlton, touring with an infant and a new set of carefully crafted songs. We’re lucky to have had it here, in a space where so much great music has been made over the decades, and to have it hopefully kick off decades more to come.

Learning to Fly (Tom Petty)/Carousel
Hands on Me
Tall Tales for Spring
White Houses
Take it Easy
House of Seven Swords
Blue Pool
Nothing Where Something Used to Be
I Don’t Want to Be a Bride
A Thousand Miles 

Get Good
The Marching Line