Like the band's 2009 self-titled album, a distinct story arc is one of the piece's strong points. Live, the Head and the Heart combined new and old songs to create yet another extended story through song, different but just as strong as what the Seattle group has sequenced in the studio.
The not-so-quiet Quiet Life opened with a brief set in support of an album slated for release next week, followed by the tight four-piece Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. The enthusiastic audience hadn't lost any of its love for Thao Nguyen and company in the two months since Thao's headlining show at Off Broadway. Nguyen switched between a variety of stringed instruments and blended dissonant vocal harmonies, and the crowd responded.
Bombastic and thumping, the Head and the Heart started big with "Shake," the first single from the new album. A stomp-along bottom-heavy track with a sing-along chorus, someday it'll serve as a perfect set-closer. Although it works really well to thrust an audience into the evolution of the band's songwriting, which takes a harder, rhythm-driven stance, which continued into "Homecoming Heroes," creating an opening build-up with a bang before melting into the softer piano-driven "Coeur D'Alene." The older song maintained the energy of the new tracks with astring-heavy arrangement that still allowed the percussion and piano to set the tone.
As excited as we get about new material, there's usually some lingering dread in shows immediately after a new album's release when old favorites get neglected in favor of road testing new material. The Head and the Heart struck a balance between its two albums, giving heavy emphasis on earlier work with "Ghosts" and "Honey Come Home" leading into three new tracks. The musicians built anticipation for the new songs, sprinkled among the old, morphing the two albums into a story of its own without losing the connection to their fans, or muddying the tale with conversation and explanations.
Three-part harmony from Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell and Charity Rose Thielen on "10,000 Weight in Gold" carries equal force to the six-instrument arrangement, with such an emotional wallop that makes every song feel like a life-changing epic. The same vocal power hit hard near the end of "Josh McBride." The song began quiet and deep, built to an a cappella crescendo that exploded into a of percussion given lilt by Thielen's voice.
"Lost in My Mind," one of the apexes of the first album, was situated at the halfway point in the set. If we want to get dramatic about it, the song's place on the album is the falling action that pulls the story together before its summation. On stage, it became the thickening of the plot, building a tension powerful enough to inspire audience high-fives after the song's last howling harmonies and kick drum finale.
When the high-fiving starts, the "indie-folk" label needs to end up in the trash.
The falling action for this story was decidedly quieter and more contemplative than the first half, moving into the more piano and lyric-driven soft songs from both albums - "Another Story," "Winter Song" and "Sounds Like Hallelujah," which broke the quiet spell after an achingly determined slow start that built to yet another climax that left the audience jumping and singing, a suitable lead-in for "My Friends." Vocalist Russell nearly ventured into glam-rock territory, hosting his mic stand, but still overshadowed by Johnson's workhorse vocals and guitar.
While the high-fives and stand-hoisting aren't hallmarks of a stereotypical indie-folk show, perhaps audience members yelling, "More piano!" is. That happened as "Gone" ended with yet another anthemic sprawl that succumbed into a graceful piano solo by Kenny Hensley, leading into the simple acoustic guitar of set-ender "Rivers and Road." Near-silent and simple in the beginning, the song was a tight, controlled climb, especially in contrast to the looseness of the opening of the set. With deliberation and control, they made a heavy climb illustrated with flashing stage lights among the pristine vocal howls, drawn together in the end with wordless a cappella harmonies bound with a single, final bass drum beat.
Johnson returned to the stage alone to begin the encore -- just his voice and guitar, almost lost among the crackling energy of the fired-up crowd as he slipped into an untitled, unrecorded tune. By the time he reached the end, with the lyrics "Let yourself grow wild before you get too old," he had a nearly-silent, enraptured crowd in his hand, passing us to the band for dark and gentle "Cruel," a melancholy softness before ending as big as it had started with "Down in the Valley." A full story in itself, the song's another life epic of finding your way and yourself, starting quiet and controlled and ending jubilant and wild, back to where we were shaking 90 minutes earlier. Not a tidy summation, but a winding journey with hills and drops, led by a band who knows the path, even if we don't.
Honey Come Home
10,000 Weight in Gold
Let's Be Still
Lost in My Mind
Sounds Like Hallelujah
Rivers and Roads
Down in the Valley