The Head and the Heart get rapturous in Vancouver
At the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday, October 20
For those who headed to the Commodore Ballroom expecting a full-on religious experience from the Head and the Heart, the smart money was on—for no other reason than its title—“Sounds Like Hallelujah”. That song not only delivered, but delivered big time. For proof, you only had to check out the posse of Japanese exchange students camped out at the foot of the stage. For the first third of the show, they look bored out of their skulls, standing there staring off into space, one of them so seemingly unimpressed she was absentmindedly blowing chewing-gum bubbles.
Halfway through “Sounds Like Hallelujah”, however, they evidently decided that when you’re in Rome, you might as well do like the Romans. Or, more accurately, the stoned-to-the-knockers Lotuslanders who were there to see the Head and the Heart as part of the Straight Series. As 900-strong fans did their best to drown out the Seattle folk-pop upstarts, hollering “I’m singing hallelujah for the first time” with enough force to rock the heavens, the exchange students suddenly joined the party. By the end of the song they were doing a hyper-spirited Bonnaroo boogie with each other, looking, well, like a bunch of thrilled kids who’ve discovered the joys of singing hallelujah for the first time. Consider that a telltale sign of how insanely infectious the energy was in the room on this night.
Amazingly, as powerful as that was, it wasn’t the standout moment of what was a crazy-awesome show. Instead, that came a couple of songs earlier, during “Lost in My Mind”, where you could suddenly see performers and audience become one, feeding off each other to create that electric connection that makes good shows great.
The opening notes of “Lost In My Mind” were greeted with a deafening roar, this giving way to a full-on love-in when the night’s support acts—Thao and the Get Down Stay and Lemolo—stormed the stage to help out, exuberantly so, on background vocals. It didn’t take long before every person in the room, with the exception of the bouncers and those exchange students, joined the all-hands-on-deck sing-along. Through it all, the Head and the Heart’s frontline—singer-guitarists Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell, and platinum-tressed violinist Charity Rose Thielen—danced around grinning like they’d just won the Powerball lottery. It was beautiful.
The audience fully on-board, the Head and the Heart could do no wrong from that point on. The band’s main players—the trucker-hat-adorned Johnson and the barefoot-and-bearded Russell—took things down three notches for the next number, “Winter Song”, this doing nothing to damper the enthusiasm of the faithful. And then, a couple of songs later, Thielen delivered the show’s knockout blow.
Much of the Head and the Hearts’ considerable appeal is built around the golden-throated harmonies of its frontmen, both of whom look like card-carrying members of the Fleet Foxes fan club. Thielen might very well be the group’s secret weapon, though. The violinist spent much of the night giving ’er like she was at a tent revival, slapping her thighs and screaming out lyrics to pianist Kenny Hensley and drummer Tyler Williams. That she comes across as a Pacific Northwest indie-folk version of Bridgette Bardot doesn’t hurt. The most perfect moment of a perfect night came when Thielen stepped to the mike during a mid-song lull in “Rivers and Roads” and wailed, in a soulful voice that was part Janis Joplin and part Feist: “Rivers and roads/Rivers and roads/Rivers ’till I reach you.” Forget a concert—from the way the crowd roared its approval, it sounded like the Rapture. Yes, the Head and the Heart was that kind of religious experience. Move over Fleet Foxes, you’ve got some serious hometown competition.
Thao With the Get Down Stay Down left one wondering why some singers (we’re looking at you Chan Marshall) get all the breaks, and others seem doomed to slug it out on the indie circuit. It’s not overstating things to say that lead singer Thao Nguyen is nothing less than magnetic, the best thing being that she’s never going to be accused of being a one-trick pony. Backed by the three-piece Get Down Stay Down, the San Francisco–based singer powered through an admirably adventurous set that was all exotic witchy-woman prog one song and golden-era college rock the next.
How great was Nguyen? Well let’s just say that, logically speaking, the highlight of her set should have been “Beat (Health, Life and Fire)”, which was transformed to an all-star jam when members of the Head and the Heart and Lemolo arrived on-stage to lend a hand on maracas, drums, and backups. One song later Thao easily topped that by ripping into some beyond-mean slide guitar. The clinic she put on would have been enough, but the singer, whose dress was accessorized by thrashed brown cowboy boots, sweetened the deal with some of the best country dance moves this side of Country Music Television. God really needs to make this woman a star.