To best experience piano-pop powerhouse Sara Bareilles, you have to see her live. It only makes sense for an artist who got her start at Los Angeles open-mic nights and widened her reach over two decades to headline iconic venues such as the Fillmore in San Francisco, as well as starring on Broadway and television.
Certainly Bareilles’ 2004 breakout album, “Careful Confessions,” and its lead ballad, “Gravity,” established her on commercial radio alongside post-Lilith Fair contemporaries such as Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson. But the stage is her home. A self-described musical theater kid, the autodidactic pianist performed in community theater productions, sang a cappella in college at UCLA and played at local Los Angeles watering holes such as Hotel Cafe and Genghis Cohen before making her way to larger venues and opening for other easy-listening artists such as James Blunt, Maroon 5 and Paolo Nutini.
After getting a boost from her adult-contemporary compatriots, Bareilles became a regular fixture on the Billboard charts and in Grammy circles. (After eight nominations, she finally nabbed a Grammy win in 2019 for Best American Roots Performance for “Saint Honesty.”) After the initial rush of red carpets and splashy interviews, Bareilles circled back to her theater roots by composing the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical rendition of “Waitress” (2015), contributing original score compositions to the “SpongeBob SquarePants” musical (2016) and even starring as Mary Magdalene in the NBC musical television special “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” (2018).
Expanding her brand to Broadway required Bareilles to bet on herself — to take a leap of faith that there’d be a place for her on the Great White Way. Her confidence evolution — as a performer and malleable songwriter — are captured in recordings that showcase Bareilles at two pivotal points in her near two-decade career: “Between the Lines: Live at the Fillmore” (2008) and “Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse” (2013).
‘Between the Lines’ sets out to contrast its now-famous subject with her small-town upbringing.
The first, filmed only a few years after her debut album and one year after “Love Song” exploded onto pop charts, depicts a young woman still absorbing that it’s her — no one else — who gets to headline the show. Directed by the highly decorated music photographer Danny Clinch and Pablo Casaverde, “Between the Lines” sets out to contrast its now-famous subject with her small-town upbringing (Bareilles grew up in the Northern California port town of Eureka, about a four-hour drive from San Francisco), interspersing her highly produced Fillmore set with shots of the singer and her bandmates playing unplugged by the water with a coterie of close friends in tow. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that she has a proclivity in concert for covering Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”) We also get a rare window into Bareilles’ inner-monologue as she, via voiceover, unveils the personal significance of each track.
At the Fillmore, Bareilles stakes her claim in the Bay Area pantheon with a headlining set at the same venue that was a 1960s talent incubator, hosting then-rising stars such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Santana and the Grateful Dead. The moment is hardly lost on Bareilles, who opines that the Fillmore is “one of those venues that you’d just give your right arm” to headline. But the singer is quick to undercut any hint of grandeur with her self-deprecating comments backstage. When a friend asks her if she’ll do any outfit changes for the film, Bareilles guffaws, “Only when the background dancers are around.”
Unaccompanied, and without bandmates to trade glances or banter, Bareilles does a trust-fall exercise with herself.
Five years later in Atlanta, a more mature albeit still-evolving Bareilles staged a different kind of show in support of her crescendo-stacked 2013 album, “The Blessed Unrest.” She has described the song as a civil-rights anthem, and she makes the case amid a set with only a piano and booming vocals. Unaccompanied, and without bandmates to trade glances or banter, Bareilles does a trust-fall exercise with herself. Indeed, the singer booked the solo tour — which she aptly called “Brave Enough” — to conquer her phobia of performing alone, which “had up until that point been a pretty large fear.”
After playing countless open-mic nights as an unknown in her early 20s, she is ready for the challenge. With trademark frankness and humor — she quips about what her father would think of her wearing a “sheer-ass shirt” — and daring confidence that allows her to own the stage, Bareilles can be seen approaching the “fuck it” stage of her career: The time when popular artists have paid their dues, proven they can knock out a few successful albums and taken control of their narrative, as opposed to being directed by some proverbial suits sitting around a conference room table. (Case in point: Taylor Swift has been in the “fuck it” stage of her career ever since “1989” — even more so on its “Reputation”-torching follow-up.)
And while Bareilles’ Tom Cruise-in-“Risky Business” moment remains just over the horizon, commencing with her eventual return to theater in 2015, her onstage extraversion across both specials foretells a future in show tunes.