The Lumineers are certainly familiar with that dream, currently in the process of a triumphant rags to riches story. Just a year ago, they were at the bottom of festival bills and struggling as a three-piece based in New York City. Now, after relocating to Denver, they close out festivals and sell out arenas. They last played St. Louis at the 340-person Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, but on October 4, the band played the Chaifetz Arena, which holds about 30 times that many people. What more could the Lumineers have hoped for?
Herman, Mo. native Nathaniel Rateliff and his band opened things off with a quick set of soft indie folk. The music sounded pleasant, but lacked command and confidence. The standing bass had far too little a presence, the drums needed more forceful kicks and even Rateliff's voice could have been turned up a few notches. Of course, all this probably came from the fact the band played to an arena crowd that was clearly unfamiliar with its music.
Dr. Dog had a perfect mix of psychedelia and folk. Unfamiliarity still hung in the air, and the opening notes of "Shadow People" and other more popular songs got no bigger a reaction than the less popular ones, but Dr. Dog noticeably won over some of the crowd. Early on, someone behind me exclaimed, "Oh my gosh! They're actually good!" and all I could think was, "Of course! That's how they got this gig!"
Dr. Dog's energy was infectious, especially during a cover of Architecture in Helsinki's "Heart It Races," when vocalist Toby Leaman bounced around so much that his baby blue knit cap partially slipped off his head. During closer "Lonesome," Leaman leapt from speaker to speaker and flapped and flailed like Johnny Rotten fronting a folk-rock band.
Before the Lumineers took the stage, five six-feet-in-diameter, gold chandeliers were revealed from under black sheets. I noticed that two of the light bulbs in the center chandelier did not light up, probably intentionally as a way to complete the "homey" feel. The band took the stage at around 9:30 p.m., welcomed by screams, swoons and the flashes of iPhone cameras.
They play relatively simple music, and despite having at least 10 different instruments on stage, only two or three contributed to each song. There were the folk staples, like acoustic guitars, a mandolin and kick drums, but also some that were perhaps more kitschy, like a miniature piano and an accordion, only used for one song each. Tambourines had a big presence, and were even used by Jeremiah Fraites to block one of the many glow sticks thrown on stage, although I am still unclear how glow sticks fit into this show to begin with.
The Lumineers are, in a way, the United States' version of Mumford and Sons, Grammy-nominated for Americana even though that barely describes what they play. It is a bit ironic that their more traditional, rootsy songs, like the mandolin-led narrative "Charlie Boy," get the least response, and their cheerful, sing-alongs find radio success.
"Ho Hey," the first of the Lumineers joyful radio hits with a chorus you can probably guess from the title, came near the middle of the set. Prior to starting the song, frontman Wesley Schultz asked the crowd to put away their cell phones and really enjoy the music. Most obliged, and it honestly did make things better. Still, screams and hollers hid some of the harmonic instrumentation that run through this song and others.
The one cover the Lumineers played was Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and I could not help but think about why the band chose that song to cover at most dates on this three month tour of amphitheaters and arenas. As Schultz sang the words Dylan penned about the emerging counterculture and growing conflicts between "straight" or "square," I realized that while the Lumineers looked happy to be making music, they did not necessarily seem happy to be making it there. The Lumineers seemed most content during songs where they could interact with one another, so at times the massive stage inhibited their chemistry.
"We're used to playing small rooms, so let's try to make this feel like a small room," Schultz said a bit later before leading his band to a smaller stage that had been set up near the back of Chaifetz's massive floor. The Lumineers played two songs, "Darlene" and "Elouise" from this stage, up close and personal with their fans, but even a smaller stage with less separation does not replicate the dark, laid-back feeling of a small room with a low ceiling.
After each song, all of the stage lights went out and the band would sometimes take close to a minute before starting up again. Every song could have been the last, but of course none could actually be because the band had to finish on a song we all knew.
The song to close things out was "Big Parade," a clap-heavy sing-along that calls for hip shaking and head bobbing. Afterwards the lights once again went off, now for the final time, and 10,000 people went their separate ways, iPhones full of video and hearts full of joy. What more could the Lumineers have hoped for? They are living the American Dream, whatever that means.