Friday, December 11, 2015

The Lone Bellow @ House of Independents - Asbury Park NJ

Every year or so I discover a band that becomes a bit of an obsession. They end up dominating my Playlists, being shared & promoted to my social media friends, family and co-workers and I see as many of their shows as time and funds will allow. This pattern began in my teens and hasn't shown any signs of abating in my forties, but as obsessions go I suppose it's a healthy one to endure, as music can't file restraining orders and rarely requires medication to manage. A couple years ago it was Volcano Choir, more recently the brilliant The War on Drugs and in the last month it's been The Lone Bellow, a band so remarkable I am frankly embarrassed I hadn't heard them at length prior to this year. I was at Newport Folk Festival in July and listened to several fans sing their praises, yet due to a GI system that felt like Slayer was playing inside it, I missed their set, unfortunately. 

The Lone Bellow are Zach Williams on Guitars and lead vocals, Brian Elmquist on guitars and vocals & Kanene Donehey Pipkin (certainly the most fun name to say in Rock & Roll) on mandolin, vocals and bass, and formed in Brooklyn in 2011 after meeting at a Diner and thankfully realizing that the the combination of these three melodious voices results in total sonic bliss. Their two CD's, The Lone Bellow and Then Came The Morning have received sizable critical acclaim and drawn fans worldwide, and although the recorded material is excellent, The Lone Bellow are a live act, meant to be experienced instead of just heard. With some bands that means there's an "entertainment" factor present that includes visuals, stage antics, props, etc., that adds to the bands music in a live setting, but with this incredible trio it's all about the sounds bellowing collectively and independently from each member.

Last night, in the intimate new venue House of Independents in Asbury Park, NJ, I was finally able to experience the impassioned performance of the The Lone Bellow and it's left me spellbound. There's always been beauty in vocal harmonies, but when it's blended with great songwriting and musicianship-as well as engaging stage presence-it crosses over from captivating to completely mesmerizing. Zach Williams' lead vocals, emanating from his "6 foot stature" (according to his mom), are where Caleb Followill from Kings of Leon wishes he could push himself, yet with Williams it comes naturally and with better tonality. He drove songs like "Take My Love" that rely heavily on the harmonies to more dynamic places with his timbre and power. He soared on tracks like "Fake Roses" and "Cold As It Is" as the band filled in the sound around him. Both Elmquist and Pipkin are exceptional vocalists in their own right, with Pipkin taking lead on the beautiful "Call to War", but it's when the three of them are in unison that you realize you are experiencing something spiritual. The singer/songwriter Marc Cohn has a line in his hit "Walking in Memphis" where he answers a woman asking if he's a Christian where he replies, "M'am I am tonight" and that's how you feel experiencing The Lone Bellow in a live setting. They aren't a "Christian band" nor do the majority of their lyrics talk a lot about God but when you're in their presence, hearing them perform and taking in the majesty of the moment, you're a believer in whatever they are preaching. 

The band closed the main set with the upbeat "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold" and from what I heard it's a reference to one of Zach's two young daughters, who were both at the show and at one point dancing in the aisle. Many of the bands songs have elements of Country, Bluegrass and Roots music but it's the infusion of rock and roll that makes songs like "Green Eyes..." and others so intriguing. It's curious to me that the band is most closely associated with Country as I haven't heard anything in that genre in years that's moved me the way The Lone Bellow has, though I know everyone enjoys putting music/bands into little boxes. Whatever label-or lack thereof-the band prefers for itself is fine as long as they continue to write and perform their music, as far as I'm concerned.

Perhaps one of the best moments of the show, and certainly most endearing, was during the encore where the band prompted audience members to share in a chorus of Christmas Carols chosen at random. The only moment that could have topped that happened when Zach brought his two little girls onstage while Brian sang "Watch Over us" (with one of the girls even offering her vocal support). If there's a better living postcard of Christmastime in America I can't imagine it. 

The venue, House of Independents, just opened in Asbury Park and was an intimate setting perfect for the band, even if their immense talent and power is deserving of far bigger stages. Last nights show was full of friends and family as well as the the bands last performance of this year before they head off to Europe. My only complaint at all, other than choosing the worst possible seat to sit in based on the row being the easiest line to bar and bathroom, was that the band omitted "Tree to Grow" from their set. It's almost like complaining that your Maserati is broken and you have to drive the Ferrari, the Lambo or the Porsche instead however, as the bands set is so strong and full of exceptional music that skipping one song is easily forgiven. Having said that, (in best Larry David voice), The Lone Bellow will be playing in Northampton MA at the end of February and I am hopeful that the song finds its way back into the set list. If not, well, I'll drive the Porsche.


Full Set List was: "Take My Love", "Marietta", "Fake Roses", "You Never need Nobody", "The One You Should've Let Go", "Two Sides of Lonely", "You Don't Love me Like You Used To", "Cold As It Is", "Call to War", "Teach Me To Know", "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold", (Assorted Xmas songs, audience participation), "Watch Over Us". 

The Lone Bellow are on Descendant Records and their latest Album is titled "Then Came the Morning".

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