On the surface, things may not have seemed great. The crowd was sparse and the band had issues with sound levels throughout the show. Still, Wilson and his band gave it their all; he even made a point to note that the show felt especially good and he was truly happy to be playing in St. Louis.
Ivan & Alyosha came with two openers, and a good portion of the small crowd came early to see both. I only caught the final moments of 18-year-old Bonzie's set, but I noted that she looked a bit like Lorde and sounded a bit like Cat Power, with powerful, wholehearted vocals, even when they were whispered.
Matrimony, typically a family affair with a husband and wife sharing lead vocals and the wife's two brothers on mandolin, banjo and drums, were hit with sickness and performed as a two piece, just Jimmy Brown playing guitar and singing lead vocals and CJ Hardee playing banjo. Some parts held up, like "Obey Your Guns," with a towering chorus that sounded like it came from a full, six or seven-piece group, but others seemed desperate for a full ensemble or at least the kick of a drum. Still, the boys put on a valiant effort and deserve credit for pulling together a set that sounded solid without half their band.
Ivan & Alyosha, for what it's worth, have been relatively successful in garnering attention in the saturated world of folk-pop. As harmonious and uplifting as the genre tends to be, it's a grueling competition to beat out a swarm of other widely-appealing bands and win attention from the masses. They've received great reviews from NPR and the like, and I'm sure that when they play a city like New York or San Francisco on a Friday or a Saturday they see sell out crowds. It was hard to watch such a hardworking, earnest band play to a crowd of less than 100 people.
The audience was happy and supportive though, and Ivan & Alyosha made due. They slowly wandered onto the stage at around 10 p.m., and played a set of songs mostly from their debut full-length album, "All the Times We Had," released earlier this year. They got right into the sublime harmonies and enlivened musicianship with "Fathers Be Kind" and "Be Your Man," and received a great reaction to "Easy to Love."
"Thanks for singing along. I can't hear you, I can't hear myself, but thank you!" Wilson said, poking fun at his concerns with the sound levels.
"Neat" is a good word to describe the first few songs Ivan & Alyosha played. They wore sweaters and button downs and had effortlessly combed hair. With four members in a row and a drummer behind them, they bounced back and forth as if each member had his own space on stage that could not be broken. The band would glance at each other and smirk during songs, but for the most part, even during the booming choruses, they remained relatively static.
As the set progressed, things loosened up. "Glorify" was the most spiritual moment of the night. Ivan & Alyosha's take on a gospel song, it certainly is about God and religion in some way, but it's never over the top.
By about half an hour into the headliner's hour-long set, roles had began to blur, positions had temporarily swapped, and locks of hair had fallen out of their styled places. During "The Fold," an introspective sing-along about perseverance and climbing metaphysical mountains, Wilson let go and pushed out long, rich notes. The star of the song was Ivan & Alyosha's soaring group harmonies, somewhere between the choral sound of Fleet Foxes and the fiery ferociousness of Mumford and Sons.
Matrimony had been watching the entire show from the side, and during "Running For Cover" the duo jumped onstage to join in on the music making. One grabbed drumsticks and the other a tambourine, and for a few minutes, the show resembled Gogol Bordello, or that great moment at LouFest when Wilco was joined by a guitar tech with a cowbell during "Hoodoo Voodoo."
Prior to the final two songs, Wilson said the band had "a couple more," which I expected meant three, plus an encore, but it turned out to just mean two, with no encore. The set might have been short because the young band did not have any more material to play, or because it was a Monday and the young crowd had work or school to get to the next morning. It's smart for a band to leave you wanting more, and Ivan & Alyosha certainly did that.