Friday, March 16, 2012
State Theatre, Portland, ME
I was giddy with excitement in the days leading up to seeing The Head and the Heart for the first time. I couldn’t sleep the night before. It was a rough Friday, both because I was exhausted from the sleepless night, but also because I realized I was coming down with something that afternoon. I tried and failed to take a nap after school. I picked up Michelle and we met a bunch of friends for dinner at our favorite Brunswick restaurant, Scarlet Begonias. We had a delicious, garlic-laden meal, and Chris, Kay, Michelle, and I piled into Chris’ fancy BMW to head to Portland for the show.
Finding parking in Portland at 7:30 on a Friday night turned out to be quite a challenge despite my legendary “parking karma,” so we got to the State Theatre a song or two into the first opening act’s set. I am really glad I had seen that there were two opening acts so I could mentally prepare for waiting that long to see a band I love so much. I headed straight to the floor to find a spot as close and as center as I could. I found some space in the center about eight rows back from the stage. Michelle met up with our friend Marian who’d injured herself at yoga, and sat with her for a while. Chris and Kay and the other Bree met up with me on the floor. I got to see Mary and Emily, two former students, and Owen and Caroline, two current students. My friends Mike and Kara texted me from the balcony to say hi. I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many people with such great taste in music.
I wasn’t quite sure how to take the first opening act—Richmond, Virginia’s Black Girls. They reminded me of UK rock band The Darkness (you might remember their song “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.”) I was caught off guard by how little their music complimented The Head and the Heart’s. I was confused, but I was entertained. The band was lovely to look at, and the lead singer’s face was expressive and outrageous and his falsetto was both lovely and hilarious at the same time. I take notes during shows because I have a terrible memory, and I wrote down “glam rock?” I thought I was inventing the perfect genre to name their style, but Black Girls’ Facebook page says their music is “glam, surf, pop, psychedelic southern soul.” I must be psychic. I think everyone should make up their own mind about music, so check out Black Girls’ video where they call their music “weird and offbeat” and get a taste of their sound.
Drew Grow & The Pastors’ Wives took the stage next. I really wanted to fall in love with them because Drew was so sweet. I liked their music fine, but I wasn’t so moved that I wanted to buy their album after the show. Drew said they were from the “other Portland” and they respected that we were there to see The Head and the Heart and they really, really appreciated our willingness to listen. He said all the right things. I’ve been going to shows lately where performers haven’t said much on stage, so I appreciated his friendly banter. He’s doing that part right, for sure. Drew played guitar, a bassist (Kris) also played upright bass, there was a drummer (Jeremiah), and a young Elton John look-a-like (Seth Schaper) played guitar and keys. I enjoyed his silk shirt, round sunglasses, and top hat. He and the drummer had come out to play tambourine with Black Girls. Now I knew who they were. I loved the harmonies that Drew and bassist Kris Doty created. Their music had a decidedly gospel feel. I think I would have liked them more if I’d heard them unplugged. This video of “Bon Voyage Hymn,” is great, and it shows the power and certitude with which the group performed. They also had stage presence—not only was Drew social, but the group interacted with each other while they played, and the drummer jumped up on a speaker during one of the songs and rocked out on tambourine. They have showmanship, for sure, and I appreciate that.
Drew said that they’d met The Head and the Heart at a festival years before, and that they’d hit it off and planned to go on tour together someday. They figured it would be the kind of tour where they’d have to call home for money. Instead, The Head and the Heart has made it kind of big, and Drew Grow & The Pastors’ Wives was thrilled to be along for the ride. They met up for the tour in Kansas, and since The Head and the Heart was playing a new song, which is apparently kind of scary for bands, Drew and the band decided to perform a new song, too. He introduced it by saying, “Of course I realize all of these songs are new to you” and he invited anyone who could see the lyrics near his feet to sing along with him. The new song was their best of the night. I think it may be called “Baby Doll”—it was a rocking song with a ton of power and a fair amount of jam time.
They invited Kelli Schaefer to join them for a song. Drew informed us that she and their drummer, Jeremiah Hayden, had gotten married a couple of weeks earlier and that this was their “Honeymoon Tour.” She had a fantastic voice. Drew acknowledged again that “opening acts are what you wait through” and thanked us profusely for being so kind and for making them feel at home even though they were so far from home. They closed with another gospel tune called “It All Comes Right” that you can download for free on their Bandcamp site. Josiah from The Head and the Heart came out to play tambourine with them on that last song (there were a lot of tambourine guest spots that night), and I liked the refrain, “I’m coming home to you.” It was a message appropriate for the end of a set.
The setup for Seattle’s The Head and the Heart took a really long time. I could hear people around me rumbling that waiting through two opening acts was frustrating. I know that for me, waiting until 10pm on a Friday night after a long week for a band I love was challenging. I plan on making a separate section on my blog for “concert audience etiquette,” but let me just mention that the break before the headlining band is my least favorite time at a show at bigger venues. It’s when people start to push their way to the front to enjoy the view from closer than where they deserve to be. Let me just say that if you want to see a band up close, you need to get there early. You can’t displace people who’ve earned those spots through their perseverance. Period. My friend Bree and some of the folks right around us rightfully nicknamed me “concert mom” that night. I’ve found that if you just call people on their rudeness, they know they’re wrong and they’ll back off. It happened more than a few times in a short period of time. I got to use my teacher voice and that teacher look that I’ve been developing for over a decade. It works.
The Head and the Heart finally took the stage and played a few songs without saying anything to us. Their third song was new—if I were guessing the title, I’d call it, “Back Home to You.” It was very rock anthemy (I just invented that word), and all I could picture was the tractor scene in Footloose (which is NOT a bad thing). There was a line I liked in it, something like “You’ve got to find your right story.” I knew the rest of the songs that night, and I love them all and was thrilled to see them performed in front of my own eyes.
If I had my way, I would hear all music acoustically. I know that’s not for everyone, but it informs you about what I like and why I might not be as drawn to certain groups. Josiah sang the last lines of “Honey Come Home” with no accompaniment. The crowd hushed and the room was silent and it was a beautiful moment. I heard beautiful vocal harmonies and clear lyrics all night, and it was wonderful to be in the presence of these songs I love so much. I want to say it was the best show of the year so far—I definitely expected that—but I needed more interaction with the group. If I wanted to just hear the songs, I could listen to their CD. When I see live music, I want to hear what a song or two is about, I want to learn something about the band, and I want to hear a story about something that happened during the recording process or has happened on tour. If at least a couple of those stories aren’t told, I am a little let down. I think that if we are paying to see a show, we should see a show. The Head and the Heart was a little cold. Josiah talked the most and did seem warm, but he was still very quiet. It made me wonder if the band is mostly shy or if they’re just not nice. I need the first one to be true and not the latter.
Josiah really led the group even though he was positioned to the side. He introduced a song (yay for that!), saying that he’d adapted a poem written by a friend about her boyfriend (now fiancé), and that he was going to their wedding in May. He called it a “very happy song.” I guessed correctly that he was talking about my favorite The Head and the Heart song, “Josh McBride.” It’s not on their self-titled album, but I am very much hoping it will be on whatever they release next (and I am SO looking forward to that). It has the most lovely lyrics, “You are in the seat beside me/You are in my dreams at night/You are in grandmother’s wisdom/You are in grandfather’s charm.” What a touching, beautiful sentiment. To me it’s so good, it’s almost heartbreaking.
Besides their power and harmonies, the thing I like best about The Head and the Heart are their lyrics. I especially love “Lost In My Mind,” that includes “Momma once told me/You’re already home where you feel love.” In the most amazing thing I’ve seen on stage in a little while (PHEW), every person from both opening bands and their tour managers (or so it seemed) came out on stage to sing, clap, and play percussion during “Lost In My Mind.” It was an unexpected and very welcome surprise.
Josiah said they’d play a couple more songs, and they did “Sounds Like Hallelujah” and then wrapped up with “Rivers And Roads.” Charity thanked the crowd and told us that the State Theatre was almost exactly like the Moore Theatre in Seattle, and that it was very humbling and unreal to them that they sold out the Portland, Maine version. Her voice soared on that last song. The whole group sounded beautiful. It had a super strong, harmonic, powerful finish and you could have heard a pin drop in the State during the last thirty seconds of the song that they did a capella. It might have been their best song of the night. My favorite part, though, was a group of guys next to us—maybe in their late teens—who were belting out the song along with the band. It was precious.
The band came out for an encore and Charity said they’d try to do a quiet song first. They played two songs for us. The first was “Chasing the Ghost,” which Charity and Jonathan did acoustically and is sadly not on their album. Everyone plugged in and the band left us with the song that made me fall in love with their music, “Down In The Valley.” My concert notebook has five little hearts drawn next to the song title.
Even in my immediate group, reviews of the show were mixed. Since then, I’ve talked to almost everyone I know who saw the show that night and we don’t all agree. I think The Head and the Heart sounded really good, I thought two opening acts was too many, and I desperately wanted more interaction with the band. Heather Browne, who wrote their bio for The Head and the Heart’s website, probably oversold them when she wrote, “Their shows are, simply, one hell of a lot of breathless fun. . . From the first months of the band’s life, their reputation as a phenomenal live band has preceded them wherever they play.” I do wholeheartedly agree, however, with her assessment that “For all the times your toes tap while enjoying this band, often the lightness will deceptively belie the depth of ache in the lyrics when you sit down to really listen.” I hope I just caught them on an off night, because The Head and the Heart has a big place in my heart. I’ll see them again this summer at the Newport Folk Festival (I get so overwhelmed when I think about the lineup!), and I’ll let you know (hopefully) that they were jubilant and effervescent.