Lessons Learned at The Lone Bellow

When you are going to write a concert review, take notes and write it the day of the concert, first draft done before you hit the sack that night. I did not do that, despite seeing a fantastic show by The Lone Bellow (and opener Anderson East). Therefore, this is not a concert review. Let’s call it a best of montage.

Lesson One – Have a great opener. Anderson East killed it in his opening set. It was the right blend of throwback soul and swagger to get the crowd into it. His smoky voice had the right rasp, his band had the right blend of funky, mustache sporting characters and his horn section provided the right blend of unique. My toe was tapping and knees bouncing from song one but let’s face it, when you are performing at a nice theater, the challenge is to get people on their feet.

East opened up by giving people the invitation to get up and dance and gently mocking the fact that everyone was sitting down in “fancy theater”. What I have immense respect for is that even though people didn’t stand up, he didn’t give up. He kept cajoling the crowd, sitting down on the front of the stage three songs in “to see what it felt like” and then launching into a wicked version of “Knock on Wood” alla Otis Redding that got everyone on their feet. I loved that he said, before that song started, “I can see that you are still sitting down which just tells me that we are not working hard enough.” I have immense respect for a musician who sees it as his responsibility to get you up and dancing.

Lesson Two – You need to have a frontman. The Lone Bellow is technically a trio, have killer harmonies, and they succeed in large part because everyone can sing. The songs that Brian Elmquist sang lead were fiery (“Heaven Don’t Call Me Home”) and achingly beautiful (“Watch Over Us”). Kanene Pipkin’s voice was showcased on multiple songs and showed why she deserves more time in the spotlight. “Call to War” was spot on perfect for capturing the mood of melancholy and hope in the same song. But Zach Williams is unquestionably the frontman. Part goofball, part raconteur, part Southern Baptist preacher with hands waving in the air, he was the glue that held it all together.

Here is the thing. I have been to many concerts of favorite artists of mine that were fantastic musically but missed something. With the Lone Bellow, I discovered that the something that those concerts were missing was the sense of fun, the anecdotes in between songs that offered connection, the willingness to sacrifice dignity for the sake of a good show. Too often, serious musicians in the realm of singer-songwriter or folk are too stoic in between songs. Williams made me wish I could spend the evening swapping stories with him over beers while his music continued to play in the background.

Lesson Three – Harmony is difficult to replicate but when you are good, you are good. For a couple songs in the middle of the set and one of the encore, the trio huddled around a single mic and ditched the bass and drums. It was in these moments that the full beauty of their harmonies were evident. Their voices rose and fell, intertwined with the grace of teamwork that can only come from a divine gift polished with practice. The accompaniment of resonator guitar, acoustic guitar and mandolin served not to lead the song but to compliment the voices. It is a cliche but they were truly better live than on record. How can you capture the fading in and out of voices that come from walking away from the mic as you continue to sing on a record?

Lesson Four – There are multiple variables that have nothing to do with the music that can affect a concert. The venue, the company, the crowd; it can all make or break a show. Thank God Anderson East got the crowd prepped and on their feet. Thank God for good friends to see a show with and a hot date. Thank God for the funky weird 70’s vibe, Egyptian motif of the Lincoln Theater and the good people of CAPA who  bring fantastic acts there. Columbus is a town that has some of the best touring acts coming through and for that, I am thankful. Now I just need to make more money so I can go to more shows.

Lesson Five – Variety is the spice of life and the fuel for a great show. Ever seen High Fidelity? John Cusack’s rules for a mixtape apply for a concert; “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch..then cool it off.” The Lone Bellow doesn’t really have a bad song on their set list, which helps things and they ended with a bang. In a decidedly joyful cover of a closer, The Lone Bellow and friends belted out Prince’s “Purple Rain.” While I am somewhat ashamed as a music aficionado to say that I am not familiar with the song,  it was both too sincere to be ironic and too fun to be taken seriously.  But it was their mixture of rollicking Gospel style, take-me-to-church (if your church is a charismatic, wave-your-hands-in-the-air type of church) and heartfelt, gather-around-a-single-mic-and-pull-my-heartstrings, that was the perfect blend of…beauty. I think that is what musical alchemy essentially is; distill this life’s pain, joy, sorrow, and laughter down to the essentials and package it in beauty.

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