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ST. CHARLES, Ia. — Roaring guitars fill Hinterland's valley, signaling the three-day festival is close to its end and Brandi Carlile is ready to return four years after she performed at the festival's inaugural year. 

The sound intensifies with an ominous bell ringing until it suddenly vanishes. A sharp contrast to the heavy start, Carlile cuts in — just her and her guitar — singing the fast-talking intro of "Hold Out Your Hand." The chorus of this song can rally a crowd, with a big-band feel and a melody that's hard to avoid singing along to.

One song in, Carlile has them hooked.

Carlile made a stop on her By The Way, I Forgive You Tour in St. Charles to close down the fifth Hinterland Music Festival. When she performed in 2015, she said she wanted to return as a fan the following year. Now a three-time Grammy-award winning singer, she expressed gratitude to not only be back but headlining the fest. 

"What a beautiful crowd. I don't think vibes get better than those ones," Carlile said. "There's something special about you people."

After a successful 2019 release, Carlile plans to release an album with Americana The Highwomen — including Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby. The newly formed group will release its debut album Sept. 6, featuring Saturday Hinterland headliner Jason Isbell along with various other contributors. 

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More: Excitement felt in the audience leading up to memorable sets by Kacey Musgraves, Hozier

Carlile's 'Joni Mitchell journey'

Before performing a Joni Mitchell cover, Carlile walked the audience through many attempts to impress the legend. 

This "Joni Mitchell journey" started when Carlile begged organizers to let her perform at Mitchell's 75th birthday event, calling herself the biggest Mitchell fan you will ever meet. After two rejections, Carlile was allowed to perform, but she said she flopped because of nerves. 

The next time Carlile saw Mitchell was at the Grammy's when Mitchell commented on Carlile's black-and-white striped outfit, asking "What are you supposed to be? A referee?"

After Carlile was given another opportunity to perform for the singer-songwriter at Mitchell's home, Carlile decided she was really going to impress her this time by performing the vocally intensive Mitchell album "Blue." This segued into the purpose of this story, as Carlile asked him she could try out one of the more challenging songs, Mitchell's "A Case of You."

Carlile, who normally includes a couple of covers at her shows, followed this ballad with her rendition of Led Zepplin's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You," amplifying the mood before bringing it back down again.

Carlile talks about her family's 'right to exist'

As Carlile tours with her two daughters, Evangeline and Elijah, something a friend said plagues her mind. One day she will pick up her baby and put them down, and that'll be the last time she'll ever pick them up.

"I'm sorry, if it haunts me, it will have to haunt you too," Carlile said.

Carlile sang a song for her daughters, "The Mother," tearing up in the end and joking, "this was supposed to be a rock 'n' roll show." 

As a lesbian, Carlile said it's important for her to talk about her family with this platform and their "right to exist in this country," which was met with applause from a supportive audience. 

"We want the right to mess up our kids like everyone else," Carlile said. 

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Carlile, who married her wife Catherine Shepherd in 2012, finished the night on the less appealing part of family and marriage: the fights that make you question if it's all worth it. The fights that leave you staying up all night drinking and listening to Joni Mitchell, Carlile said. 

"Party Of One," the last song of the night, was for those who start to drive away, to remind them why they should turn back around and go home, Carlile said. A sharp contrast to the aggressive, heavy-instrumental start, Carlile left the audience with a soft orchestral finish, which was met with a standing ovation on the hills.

Brandi Carlile set list

  • Hold Out Your Hand
  • Wherever Is Your Heart
  • Hard Way Home
  • The Story
  • The Eye 
  • Raise Hell
  • Fulton County Jane Doe
  • A Case of You (Joni Mitchell cover)
  • Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You (Led Zeppelin cover)
  • The Mother
  • The Joke
  • Pride and Joy
  • Mainstream Kid
  • By The Way, I Forgive You
  • Party Of One

Danielle Gehr is a breaking news reporter at the Des Moines Register. She can be reached by email at dgehr@dmreg.com, by phone at 515-284-8367 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.

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