The Head and the Heart

December 13, 2010

Last night at the Troubadour was a complete and utter surprise. It was one of those wonderful evenings when everyone seems to know a secret that you don't.

Arriving early at the venue, I was astonished to see a line forming down the block. The British indie folk band, Stornoway was headlining their first show ever in Los Angeles, but–did they really have such a large fan base already? It was only 8:30pm and people were jostling to get inside. What happened to arriving fashionably late?

Inside the air was hot and sticky as people were packed like sardines around the edges of the stage. Just before nine the opening band The Head and The Heart took the stage and the place went ballistic. Newly signed to Sub Pop this six piece band from Seattle has only been around for almost a year, but their rise has been meteoric for reasons I didn't understand until last night.

They tore the place down.

The foundation of the band was rooted in the classic folk harmonies of frontpeople Josiah Johnson, Jon Russell, and Charity Thielen. The three of them took center stage, Johnson and Russell trading off the lead as well as the tambourine and acoustic guitar, while Theilen threaded in her low clear voice in between her dramatic violin solos. The three of them sang with such joy that it radiated off the stage and convinced the audience to sing along even though most of them didn't know the words.

Jon Russell (The Head and The Heart); Credit: Sandra Vahtel

Jon Russell (The Head and The Heart); Credit: Sandra Vahtel

Contrasting the folk vocals were bright pop arrangements created by Kenny Hensley on the keys. He kept things bubbling and light when the lyrics tended to be too introspective and melancholy. But the men who pulled it all together was percussionist Tyler Williams and bassist Chris Zasche who created a hand-clapping, foot stomping rhythm section that was undeniably catchy.

All of these elements fell into place, the drama, the pep, and the organic sincerity, and the crowd was won over after the first two numbers. The only thing the band didn't have was stage banter, which they readily acknowledged. “We're not really talkers,” Russell admitted at the end of as song. Johnson jumped in, “I only got three words in my vocabulary and one of them is “dude”.”

The set ended with a roar of approval usually reserved for local heroes. The applause didn't die down until the band had left the stage, came back to pack up their gear, and left again. This is why it's always worth checking out the opening bands. You never know what you'll find.

Josiah Johnson (The Head and the Heart); Credit: Sandra Vahtel

Josiah Johnson (The Head and the Heart); Credit: Sandra Vahtel

Poor Stornoway had an incredibly tough act to follow, but they manage to do so with grace. Violinist Rahul Satija strode out on stage by himself bold as can be and proceeded to stun the crowd by looping melodies over and over until he had created his own symphony. The audience's attention thus captured, the rest of the band bounded on stage and got things rolling.

Like The Head and The Heart, Stornoway's set was built on beautiful harmonies centered on lead singer Brian Briggs' sharp, clear voice. With intelligent lyrics and pretty melodies this five piece laid down a very respectable set made up of songs from their debut album Beachcomber's Windowsill. Upbeat and charming, the band cracked wise about traveling in America and discovering 4Loko for the first time, but the wind had gone out of the audience's sails and by the end of the set the venue was half full.

You shouldn't have left, guys. You missed the best part. Stornoway really shined during their encore. Eschewing microphones and all electronic props, the folk band brought out a cello, a violin, an acoustic guitar and let their voices soar unimpeded into the night air. It was gorgeous. For two songs you could see their strengths come shining through, which for unknown reasons aren't apparent when everyone is plugged in. Perhaps it's a matter of comfort, but unplugged Stornoway can really hold their own.

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