SAN FRANCISCO — Sara Bareilles has been busy in the six years since she released This Blessed Unrest, her breakthrough album that was nominated for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. First, she scored the Broadway production of Waitress. Then she acted in the play’s lead role off and on for three years. The one thing she hadn’t done was write original songs for herself. That has since changed, with the forthcoming Amidst the Chaos, her fifth solo album and sixth overall, counting the score.
Sunday, she kicked off a short run of intimate club shows where she introduced fans to her new songs, and told lots and lots of stories about what she’s been up to and what finally drove her back to the studio.
“If I knew how hard [writing for Broadway] was gonna be, I would have for sure said no,” Bareilles said midway through her 16-song set, jokingly (probably).
There was a lot to unpack at the show, from Bareilles’ increased focus on storytelling her lyricism and appreciation of country music—in a dress and black cowboy hat, she looked like Margo Price and sometimes sounded like a jazzier version of her—to her shock, fear and outrage of the 2016 presidential election, which pushed her to write new songs and get back in the studio. The concert was also filled with lighthearted moments, and she interacted with the fans (the show had sold out almost immediately), and told lengthy anecdotes before each song.
“Holy shit; do you know how long it’s been since I played a show?” she said immediately after taking the stage with her five-member backing band. She then explained that she’d be focusing on the songs from Amidst the Chaos, but whoever wanted to hear her hits wouldn’t have to wait long—a larger fall tour is planned. Bareilles then implored that fans at least pretend they were into the new material, but joked that they should prepare for the worst.
“These are songs that are new. It could be shitty,” she said. And when one fan commented on her new hairstyle, she immediately explained how it’s meant to go with the themes on her new record—”Guys, I’ve changed!”
All this happened before she and her talented band played a single note of the opener, “Fire.” The piano rocker with an explosive chorus was one of the most energetic cuts from the new album and had the artist stretching out vowels and belting on the bridge. While the song is reminiscent of her previous material, the majority of Amidst the Chaos is a different sort of art. That became evident with the next song, the contemplative “No Such Thing.”
“I wrote this this song about the Obamas—I’m not joking,” she said. Bareilles then explained how the election turned her back to music, and how participating in the Women’s March inspired the single “Armor,” which she said was the centerpiece of the album. The song has Bareilles riffing in the lower octaves of her grand piano, not unlike the style of Tori Amos.
“I also wrote this next song about the Obamas—and I’m not joking,” Bareilles said in her introduction of “If I Can’t Have You,” which featured some bluesy guitars and keyboard parts, and the vocalist singing in a higher register.
Bareilles’ 2007 hit, “Love Song” broke from the new material as she harmonized with her keyboardist on the intro. The song inspired the evening’s first singalong and eventually veered into jazzy territory. She then played “She Used to Be Mine,” from the Waitress score. The touching song ballad was one of the highlights of the entire show. Bareilles started it with just her voice and piano before the guitarist and the rest of her band joined in.
The song was one of several that fit the country music mold. So was the next, new cut “Miss Simone, on which she played acoustic guitar alongside brushed drumming.
“Sometimes I feel like the world is on fire,” Bareilles said before breaking into a faux-maniacal laughter. That and a story were the introduction to “Eyes On You,” a country-style rocker that had her singing, “The world’s on fire, and I’m trying to put out the flame.” The Humboldt County native then exchanged a few words with fans from her home before kicking into “Poetry By Dead Men,” a return to piano-led pop, and “Wicked Love,” about which she said, “I was in love, but he was an asshole for a while at first.” The song featured a climbing chord progression in the chorus that recalled “Brave.”
That hit followed a couple songs later and incited another massive singalong before Bareilles returned to the rest of her new, more demure material. She said she wrote “Orpheus,” a line from which gave the forthcoming LP its name, in order to write something that was comforting for people like herself, who go through bouts of anxiety and depression. As an electric guitar approached a twangy-adjacent sound, she repeated the song’s mantra: “I will not give up on love today.”
She concluded the main set with “Safe Place to Land,” written about the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border and the need to offer each other a safe harbor. On this one, the guitarist sat down at a pedal steel guitar, but he may as well have been pulling at heartstrings.
An encore included the sparse “Someone Who Loves Me,” which Bareilles performed by herself at the piano, and “Saint Honesty.” For this one, she explained how throughout her life as a musician, she chased perfection by recording her songs in snippets that would be cut together. But T Bone Burnett, who produced Amidst the Chaos (and his work and influence was apparent) convinced her to aim for performance over perfection. The song was one of her first—if not her first—which she recorded live in the studio in one take.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.