Brandi Carlile Sings Madman Across The Water On Howard Stern

It’s the strings.

I was driving home from a night hike and Howard Stern was talking to Brandi Carlile, she was gonna sing “Madman Across the Water.”

“Madman Across the Water” was Elton John’s fourth album in a year, and that’s not counting the American debut, the eponymous “Elton John,” which really didn’t hit until the fall of 1970 anyway, the famous Troubadour gigs were at the end of August of that year.

Elton went from zero to a hundred overnight. And even though he broke on AM radio, with “Your Song,” “Tumbleweed Connection,” which was released on October 30th, gave Elton credibility.  And then there was the live album, “11/17/70,” and the “Friends” soundtrack, talk about overexposed, by time “Madman Across the Water” came out people were burned out on Elton, not that they expected him to have continued success, most acts that broke on AM radio came and went.

“Almost Famous” made “Tiny Dancer” iconic, but it was not upon the time of release, it went all the way to #41 on the “Billboard” chart, and they call it Top Forty but really it’s closer to Top Fifteen, which means you may be in the Hot 100, but that does not mean most people are hearing your song.

In truth, it took Elton over a year to come back commercially, with “Rocket Man” in the summer of ’72. The bitch was back and he’s never gone away, he’s got a hit right now, with Dua Lipa.

I bought “Madman Across the Water,” and played it plenty at the advent of 1972 and other than “Indian Sunset,” which I heard Elton play the previous June at Carnegie Hall, it was all new to me. And I can tell you I immediately cottoned to “Tiny Dancer,” but “Holiday Inn” and “Rotten Peaches” on the flip side, two songs I’ve never heard anybody mention, were my next favorites, and the majesty of “All the Nasties” cannot be denied.

Not that every track was not good. And I knew them all. Because this was the album era, you dropped the needle at the beginning, flipped the record over and started again on the second side, and you might even go back to the first if you were endeared, or were learning the record.

Learning the album, that was part of the process. Maybe you’d heard a single, oftentimes you had not. And therefore you kept playing the album until it revealed itself, first one track, then another. Yes, repetition helped. Most people don’t listen to music this way anymore, because tracks are not scarce, everything is at your fingertips, listening is different, you go broad, not deep.

Not that you heard the first side closer, the title track, “Madman Across the Water” on the radio. Playing entire sides on radio was a no-no, labels were afraid of taping, some stations did it anyway, but the odds of hearing every cut of an album on the radio were very low, which is one of the reasons you bought the album, and if you were a fan you had to buy the album before the show, to know the music when the act played it.

So, if someone is going to do an Elton John cover, I wouldn’t expect it to be “Madman Across the Water,” if for no other reason than it’s long and slow, it’s hard to get people’s attention, never mind keep it, but this cover by Brandi Carlile is RIVETING!

The music starts fifty five seconds in. And what’s astounding is Brandi’s picking the notes EXACTLY, the notes you know from the record, the ones embellished in your brain. This is rare, duplicating the exact sound of a record, many acts who cut the damn hits can’t do this.

And then comes Brandi’s voice. Elton doesn’t even sing this way anymore. That high voice on “Madman Across the Water” is kaput. But Brandi…she has no problem hitting the notes.

Now I’m listening to the radio, I don’t know it’s Brandi playing the guitar intro, this is not Madonna or some other pop star picking out the notes, she’s obviously paid her dues, she performed for years before anybody knew who she was. She’s not struggling, she’s confident, and you can feel and hear that.

And that vocal… Sure, Brandi’s a woman, not a man. But she’s closer to the original than Elton is today. Her voice is so pure, she’s not struggling, she’s putting the wannabe TV singers to shame.


Those early Elton John albums, there was a special sauce, producer Gus Dudgeon and arranger Paul Buckmaster. They’re both dead now, and Elton has never replicated the sound of those early LPs, they’re dark and deep, as if these records were cut in dim light in a church, listening to them is a religious experience, they exist outside the system, they’re for the listeners, not the gatekeepers. Which is one reason why I still play them. They’re not throwaways, they’re the essence.

So I’m going through the curves on Sunset, trying to stay within the speed limit but enjoying the front wheels pulling me around the corners, and then I hear those strings.

I figure they’ve got a whole string section, I don’t learn until the performance is over when Howard talks that it’s actually just three players, because once again, IT SOUNDS JUST LIKE THE RECORD! Even Elton doesn’t bring string players on the road. This is not a cover, it’s an exact replica in an era where that’s impossible to get, it’s the mountaintop when no one is even bothering to attempt to climb the peak. Suddenly, I’m no longer listening, I’m having a peak experience, I can’t believe they’re hitting all the notes, but even more I can’t believe the sound of those strings, the way they’re so rich, and the way they zing,

Hell, I could continue to rant and rave, but really this is about the listening experience. It’s the original, but it’s updated with Brandi Carlile’s voice, which somehow makes the song brand new, it resonates more than anything in the Spotify Top 50, because it’s not made to be a hit, because it doesn’t have twenty writers, because it wasn’t remixed into oblivion. You listen and you truly can’t believe it.

And maybe you’re not an Elton John fan, maybe you’ve never even heard “Madman Across the Water,” that’s possible, the album is fifty years old. But you cannot listen to Brandi’s performance and think it’s nostalgia, it’s actually more honest than so many of the new records, it’s done with acoustic instruments, it’s positively human, something too often missing in this digital age. When the machines take over, we want something they cannot create. Machines cannot evidence life, only people can do that.

As Brandi Carlile does here.

Listen, you’ll be stunned.


Comments are closed