When I decided to check out the show on Thursday, June 20 at The Ark in Ann Arbor MI where I was for a conference, I expected something pretty mellow. The Lone Bellow were headlining with an opening act called The Saint Johns. It had been a very busy few days, but I did find time to listen to the first song of NPR Tiny Desk Concert linked from the page announcing the show in The Ark website. It’s called “You Never Need Nobody,” and it is performed acoustically in the NPR offices, as the Tiny Desk Concerts always are. I liked it and decided to go. I didn’t have time to read anything else.
Now it says right there on the web page of the venue that “The Ark is Ann Arbor’s nonprofit home for acoustic music,” and that it presents “performers who fall into the wide-ranging genres of folk and roots music.” I love that stuff, and judging from video, as well as their name, The Lone Bellow would be an example of it par excellence. I looked looked at them in that video, dressed in dark colors, playing acoustic instruments, singing a song about heartbreak… They even had a mandolin… I knew what to expect. This would be a show full of sad, mountain music, albeit interpreted by New Yorkers, because the page said they hailed from Brooklyn. That was cool by me. I love that stuff! Wow, was I ever in for a surprise, a good one, but a surprise nonetheless! There’s a decent amount of melancholy in the songs of The Lone Bellow to be sure, but these were not three lost souls standing on stage bellowing out their sorrow. The show was a fun, energetic, and upbeat celebration of music they loved playing and shared shared joyfully with the fans who’d come to hear them play. Brian Elmquist, Kanene Pipkin and especially lead singer Zach Williams seemed so genuinely delighted to be performing for the audience, you couldn’t help but be delighted to be there listening. Whether leading the audience in an impromptu rendition of a verse and chorus from a Top 40 R&B hit from a while back; commenting on how much they enjoyed the unusual laugh of an audience member they couldn’t see because of the bright stage lights shining in they’re eyes; or even jumping off stage to lead the audience in singing along one of the their own tunes, this was a band that got the audience involved by being involved with the audience.
Oh, and if my mention of an impromptu R&B tune led you to wonder what kind of music this band plays after all, it turns out that its a little hard to classify. It’s certainly not acoustic folk, though it is solidly routed in country and folk. Yet it’s generally amplified with definite urban, Rock, and R&B elements. Appropriately, the lyrics that alternately evoke Brooklyn and Georgia.
Songs like “Bleeding Out” or “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” came across as rock anthems with all the energy of a stadium performance, even in a 400 seat hall that wasn’t even sold out. Other songs such as “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” fit solidly into a country music tradition of laments. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance on that one, too. It was an endearingly silly, almost goofball performance that brought to mind many similar duets in the genre throughout country music history. Toward the end of the show the band played a new song, a kind of rockabilly rave-up by Brian Elmquist, the title of which I didn’t catch, but which set the room on fire. Essentially the band plays music that refuses to be pinned down.
Of course they are not the only artists working in that space. It’s only because the music industry and the media find it much more convenient to slot everyone into a niche that we operate under the misconception that musical genres are fixed spaces with rigid conventions. I like the artists that step outside them. The Lone Bellow, however, don’t have to step outside the limits of their genre because they refused to be defined by one to begin with.
Will their refusal to fit neatly into genre radio friendly box hurt their career? I doubt it. I have seen some of the most legendary live bands in concert, but very rarely have I had the pleasure of seeing one so early in their careers in such a small room. When you love playing this much, it shows. At the end of their set, just before the encore, Zach Williams invited fans to stick around after the show saying, “we’d like shake your hand and thank you for listening to our music.”
If I were you, I’d check this band out soon. In a few years, I don’t think they’ll be playing many venues where they’ll be able to make that offer!
Opening for The Lone Bellow was The Saint Johns. Nashville-based Florida native Louis Johnson and Jordan Meredith are as adorable as they are talented, and they are also preparing their first full-length studio album. If the songs they played at the show are any indication, it will be a collection of sweet melodies and rich harmonies set to evocative, metaphorical lyrics, mostly, though not exclusively, about heartbreak. That description may sound depressing, but the songs work and definitely aren’t. I’m very much looking forward to the record.
The Saint Johns put on an engaging, brief set that featured this developing collection of songs and provided the audience with a little bit of background to them, all delivered with wit and charm. Though it was a much more mellow set than the one delivered by The Lone Bellow, I quite enjoyed it.
You can check out their music at http://www.thesaintjohns.com