in performance: the lumineers/nathaniel rateliff

the lumineers

the lumineers: wesley schultz, neyla pekarek, stelth ulvang, jeremiah fraites and ben wahamaki.

As they settled into a groove last night at Memorial Coliseum, the five members of The Lumineers gave every indication that its polite, unhurried brand of folk-inspired pop would be the order of the evening. Then, as the band launched their biggest hit, singer/frontman Wesley Schultz asked the predominantly college-age audience in attendance to do the unthinkable.

Yep, just as the introductory riffs commenced on Ho Hey, the chirpy radio hit that essentially introduced the Denver band and its wide-eyed pop sound to the world last year, Schultz requested the crowd – and you almost hear the audible gasps – to put away their cell phones.

It wasn’t some major pronouncement or demand. Neither was the performance of Ho Hey, for that matter, which was dispensed with zero fanfare four songs into the 75 minute show. Still, the request had a ricochet effect. A few fans cheered. Some booed briefly. Most simply complied. Apparently powering down from social electronica for just over an hour wasn’t as visible a hardship and one would imagine.

The request wasn’t the only surprise of the night, either. While guitarist Schultz was the band’s focal point during all of the 17 songs tackled last night, he wasn’t the catalyst that sparked The Lumineers’ craftier moments onstage. Neither was cellist Neyla Pekarek, a co-founding member with a seemingly distinctive musical contribution to make. Sadly, her playing was lost in an uneven sound mix for much of the evening save for a mid-show segment when the band pared down to its three core members.

No, the MVP of this light though slightly lumbering Lumineers show was pianist Stelth Ulvang, whose playing propelled Sawmill Joe’s Ain’t Nobody’s Problem and a curiously dark hoedown version of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Ulvang also proved to be keenly resourceful by switching to mandolin for the hearty hootenanny flavor of Charlie Boy and accordion during a two song stretch (Darlene and Elouise) that had him playing in the lower sections on each side of the coliseum while the rest of the band joined the audience assembled on the venue’s floor.

Drummer Jeremiah Fraites was a close runner up with a percussion sound that was wildly intuitive and far reaching, whether it was through a variety of spacious rhythms hammered out on a traditional kit or more rustic beats drawn from a kick drum at the foot of the stage.

It was all as good natured as could be, even though the majority of the songs reflected fairly pat arrangements that seldom strayed from the lean and brief versions originated on the band’s self-titled debut album. One fine exception was Stubborn Love. Next to Ho Hey, this was The Lumineers’ biggest hit. But it was also one the few tunes that seriously opened up last night to involve the audience, especially during an ensuing sing-a-long. That might seem like a conventional stage ploy. But for a show steeped in material and performances that often seemed shy and safe, Stubborn Love was a breakthrough.

Fellow Denver folk stylist Nathaniel Rateliff opened the evening with a curious though somewhat distant sounding set that operated from more dissonant sounding sources than the evening’s headliners. Several songs coalesced into anthemic, Avett Brothers-style grooves at times, which quickly won audience approval. Mostly, though, one was left thinking that a more intimate listening environment might have been a better setting to appreciate the cloudy, quirky turns of Rateliff’s tunes.

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