The Head and the Heart at the Varsity Theater, 8/7/11
The Head and the Heart August 7, 2011 Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
There's a line from the Head and the Heart's standout track "Down in the Valley" where Jonathan Russell sings, "Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways." The line fits in perfectly with the rest of the song's lyrics, but it doesn't quite fit with the band belting out the line: Seattle sextet the Head and the Heart aren't exactly rough or rowdy, but joyously rambunctious might be a better way to describe their live show.
The young band played their first headlining show in Minnesota to a sold-out crowd at the eternally stuffy Varsity Theater, and by all accounts, they had a great time doing so. You could see the genuine awe on singer/violinist Charity Rose Thielen's face as she and her bandmates led the crowd through the steadily uplifting harmonies on "Lost in My Mind." With their optimistic folk-pop stomp, the Head and the Heart showed the sold-out crowd what all the fuss was about (though most people in attendance seemed to know already).
The mountain of press both positive and negative about this young band has been hard to miss, and the story of their self-titled full-length is included everywhere as well, but it bears repeating. The Head and the Heart recorded their album in early 2010 and then self-released it in June of that year, reportedly selling as many as 10,000 copies of the album without the help of a label. Indie lifers Sub Pop got involved later that year, and re-released the album in January 2011, which only increased the group's widening exposure. Since then they've toured constantly, playing venues large and small, and even busking at farmer's markets and the like when they have a chance.
For such a young band, the Head and the Heart have a lot going for them. Their "tour constantly" mantra has paid off in dividends; the sextet truly shines in the live setting, perhaps even more so than on record. There were no uncertain count offs or weak instrumental parts; they performed their small catalog with road-tested confidence that makes all the difference.
The group is also blessed with three lead singers. Josiah Johnson and Russell trade off the main singing duties, but violinist Thielen's vocal harmonies and occasional lead lines are just as strong. In fact, it would be lovely to hear more of her smoky pipes in the future. When these three aren't trading off acoustic guitar or violin duties, they're shaking a tambourine or shaker and generally having a great time onstage. (I felt bad for pianist Kenny Hensley, who had to play sitting down and couldn't enjoy the bro love happening between Russell and Johnson). Their joy was seriously infectious, and the crowd felt it too.
The Head and the Heart kicked off the night with the first three tracks from their album in rapid succession, and it seemed like they might play it from top to bottom. However, the crew wisely saved some of their best songs for later in the set. Despite their Americana-leaning harmonies and lyrics, many of the songs have an underlying pop bounce and tunefulness to them, thanks largely to Hensley's piano playing. With the heavy piano emphasis, the tunes occasionally recalled the buoyant pop melodies of the Chicago quartet The Hush Sound mixed with the more soulful melodies of certain strains of folk.
With such a small catalog of songs, the sextet played two (possibly three) new tunes that picked up right where the album left off. Russell even sang a beautiful solo tune for the first song of the encore (though it could have been a cover). However, the songs that got the biggest responses from the crowd were undoubtedly "Lost in My Mind," "Rivers and Roads," and the closer, "Down in the Valley." Surrounded by groups of college students, the "all our friends will move away in a year" theme running through "Rivers and Roads" was downright poignant.
The band's optimism in these and many of their other tracks is hard to deny, and when our country's economy seems to be sinking further and further into the abyss, this sort of uplift is much-appreciated. Sure, there have been plenty of other bands that do earnest folk pop well, and there will be plenty more in the future, but that doesn't mean there's not something special or worthwhile about this Seattle crew.
The Head and the Heart's straightforward, earnest lyrics may not always work as they'd like, but they have too many other great things going for them for this to matter too much. The Arcade Fire, another group with a penchant for huge melodies and harmonies, has been known to write some lyrical clunkers too, but that doesn't hold them back. When there's a capacity crowd singing larger-than-life harmonies right back at the band, it doesn't much matter how poetic the lyrics are. You'd have to be completely numb not to feel something.
Personal Bias: The record's not bad, but that live show is something else entirely. The Crowd: College students and people who listen to The Current. Overheard in the crowd: "Ah I love this one!" after just about every song, from a different place in the crowd. Random notebook dump: Lucy Michelle & the Velvet Lapelles battled the amateur sound set-up at the Varisty and performed a really solid opening set. It'd be great to see them in a venue where they have their sound figured out. What a voice! - But seriously, even the Head and the Heart were having sound issues. What's the deal, Varsity? - Russell on Lucy Michelle and company: "Why didn't you guys tell me about them?? They're great!" For more photos: See our full slideshow by Tony Nelson.
Set list Cats and Dogs Couer d'Alene Ghosts Honey Come Home Heaven Go Easy On Me New song Lost in My Mind Winter Song Sounds Like Hallelujah New song Rivers and Roads
Encore: Solo new song (?) Down in the Valley
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