Jonathan Russell’s head was at the Armory Wednesday night, but at least part of his heart was at downtown’s more famous danceteria.
“It’s hard to get away from First Avenue, but this is a beautiful venue you guys have here,” the Head and the Heart frontman told a crowd of about 5,000 inside Minneapolis’ newest venue, which opened in January. (Indeed, the Mainroom is the Twin Cities spot the group knows best; they played there five times from 2011 to 2013.)
The 83-year-old Minneapolis Armory building at the corner of 6th St. and 5th Ave.—which hosted the Minneapolis Lakers for the 1959-60 season, was almost turned into a jail in the ’90s and most recently served as a parking garage—was purchased by its new owners for $6 million in 2015 and re-opened for a slew of Super Bowl LII concerts. I had my doubts about whether the Seattle five-piece’s cutesy-rootsy indie rock would be able to fill such a large hall, but they made the most of their biggest Twin Cities gig yet.
In town for a second go-round to promote 2016’s Signs of Light, Russell and his band (rounded out by violinist Charity Rose Thielen, bassist Chris Zasche, pianist Kenny Hensley, and drummer Tyler Williams) kicked things off with energetic renditions of their latest record’s “All We Ever Knew” and “City of Angels,” both of which made full use of the venue’s lighting budget.
The group played six cuts from Signs over the course of their 17-song, 90-minute set, which also featured a healthy helping of their eponymous 2011 debut, a few fan favorites from 2013’s Let’s Be Still, and some storytelling by Russell.
The singer/guitarist explained that he had been inspired to add “Heaven Go Easy on Me,” to the set after watching a video of a group of first-graders singing his songs. “It was the most surreal, uplifting-but makes-you-want-to-cry-your-eyes-out footage I’ve ever seen,” he said. Later, while introducing the newest LP’s “Oh My Dear,” he talked about how a murder of crows would follow him to his neighborhood coffee shop when he first moved to Seattle.
Russell also revealed that the band has been working on new material, prior to airing some of it live. Their encore opened with an untitled new song from a recent Joshua Tree, California recording session.
Elsewhere in the show, Thielen wowed the audience with her string skills on tracks like the aforementioned “Heaven” and “Cats and Dogs,” while her vocal contributions to “Let’s Be Still,” “Winter Song,” and “Rivers and Roads” elicited the loudest cheers of the night.
Perhaps not coincidentally, as the band exited the stage upon closing with the latter, she exclaimed, “This is one of my favorite shows we’ve played in a very long time!”
Critic’s bias: I’ve seen the Head and the Heart play before Death Cab for Cutie at Omaha’s Maha Music Festival in 2014, but I didn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other.
The opener: Grouplove supported the Head and the Heart with an hour-long opening set, which featured hits like “Colors” and “Tongue Tied” alongside gratuitous covers of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” The band’s Hannah Hooper revealed that Grouplove and their touring partners had, over drinks the night before, decided to form a supergroup in the near future. Her bandmate Christian Zucconi’s suggestion for a band name was laugh-out-loud funny: Group Head.
The venue: The Armory is a wonderful venue, with two levels of elevated viewing areas and good sightlines all across the floor. It also sports some gorgeous, vintage 1930s murals in the entryway and what appear to be the longest bars in the Twin Cities. The $8 french fries could do some damage after such easy access to overpriced alcohol, though.
All We Ever Knew
City of Angels
Rhythm & Blues
Let’s Be Still
Take a Walk
Lost in My Mind
Heaven Go Easy on Me
Oh My Dear
I Don’t Mind
Sounds Like Hallelujah
Cats and Dogs
Rivers and Roads