Branch-ing out with Michelle

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Michelle Branch does a countrified version of “Leave The Pieces” at the Hawthorne Theater in Southeast Portland.

Remember Michelle Branch?

The dark-haired, big-voiced singer who burst onto the pop-rock scene as a teenager, won a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist, and knocked out a bunch of best-selling albums and singles?

Seems it wasn’t that long ago that she and Carlos Santana were collecting a 2002 Grammy for “The Game of Love.”

But that was 15 years ago and, though she continued performing as a solo artist and collaborator, Michelle has laid low in recent years. I’ve always liked her voice, though, so I grabbed a chance to see her live in Portland.

Now 34, she’s touring the U.S. in support of a new album released earlier this year. Her Wednesday night at the Hawthorne Theatre drew an all-ages crowd for an hour-long set. It’s an intimate space, with room for about 500 people, the kind I like in order to get up-close to an artist rather than viewing a big screen image in a huge arena.

After a thoroughly forgettable warm-up band, Michelle came out to a raucous welcome and promised a mix of the new and old.

Can’t say I was blown away. Biggest factor was a sound system that made everything sound muffled. Secondarily, gotta say I wasn’t feelin’ the new material. Either way, it’s hard to get into the music when it isn’t as clear as it should be.

Branch had a nice rapport with the crowd and seemed genuinely happy to be performing in a small venue. The audience came alive and sang along on a couple of her biggest hits — “Breathe” and “All You Wanted.”

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Small venues allow you to get as close as you like to the artist — in this case, about 30 feet from Michelle Branch.

She brought a trio of women onto the stage, including a fiddle player, to play a stripped-down version of “Leave The Pieces,” a hit from the 2006 album “Stand Still, Look Pretty.” On that CD, she collaborated with Jessica Harp on a great set of songs that drew on their respective pop and country roots and earned Michelle one of her four Grammy nominations.

As for “The Game of Love”? Wish I could say Santana snuck onto the stage and blew everyone away. This version featured an old-school saxophone player doing the guitar solo part. Interesting, but nowhere near as good.

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Michelle Branch performs the monster hit “The Game of Love” with a sax player who is definitely not Carlos Santana.

This was my first time at the Hawthorne. Probably won’t be my last, but it’s not nearly as inviting a space as others around the city — Aladdin Theater, Crystal Ballroom, Wonder Ballroom, Mississippi Studios.

As for Michelle Branch, I wish her well on the tour. She’s a talented lady, working hard to resurrect a career that once seemed boundless.

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