The Lone Bellow bring their Storm to Philadelphia
That the face of country music has changed over the last fifteen years is undeniable. The advent of “bro country” and the proliferation of party songs have left little room on mainstream radio for the thoughtful storytelling and haunting harmonies that had been associated with country in years past. But to assume that no one pursues this brand of music anymore would be incorrect. Under the mantle of Americana or roots/folk rock or alt-country, the artists who are currently creating this genre-defying music are flying under the radar, finding advocates in satellite radio and other forms of social media music sharing.
It’s rare that one of these underground artists breaks through to the mainstream, but one such band who has found success internationally is Brooklyn-bred and Nashville-based The Lone Bellow. Their first two albums, a self-titled effort and Then Came the Morning, were Billboard-charting, critically acclaimed successes, both breaking into the top ten of the folk charts when they were released in 2013 and 2015, respectively. The band are currently touring in support of their new album, Walk Into a Storm, which was released in September. They recently stopped in Philadelphia, where lucky residents had the opportunity to see them twice in one day. Their first performance was at the famed radio station WXPN’s Free at Noon stage at World Café Live, which was broadcast for lunchtime listeners’ enjoyment, before making their way across the city for a sold out show at Union Transfer.
The venue’s nineteenth century-inspired décor –exposed wood beams, rough-hewn walls and wrought iron chandeliers – served as an appropriate setting for that evening’s entertainment, with the featured bands both playing music of a style that harkens back to previous eras. The Wild Reeds, a five-piece band with not one, not two, but three young women (Kinsey Lee, Sharon Silva, and Mackenzie Howe) sharing lead vocal responsibilities, opened the show. Their music, which showcases their delicate melodies, bold, broad-ranging instrumentation, and lovely songwriting, provided the perfect aural compliment to the headliners. In no time, they had impressed and won over the audience, making their exit on a wave of enthusiastic applause. After short changeover, the headliners emerged from the wings.
Some who attend concerts view them as a catharsis, a release; others see them as social events, a way to come together with like-minded individuals; still others feel that they are religious experiences, the venue becoming a sanctuary and the music elevating them near to the divine. Seeing The Lone Bellow perform live combines all of the above. Striking yet unassuming in their uniform black suits and flowing dark gown, frontman Zach Williams, multi-instrumentalist Kanene Pipkin, and guitarist Brian Elmquist assumed their places on the stage and held the audience enraptured for two hours.
While their musical style incorporates the best of rock ‘n’ roll and folk and R&B, it’s also no coincidence to find that it’s steeped in southern gospel and soul – their shows are the musical equivalent of a big-tent revival. Williams, stepping out to the very edge of the stage and raising his hands high above the crowd, looked every inch the preacher at his pulpit, and was every bit as convincing. He is a force of nature, a captivating performer who seems to feel the music as deeply as a person possibly can. Holding positions on either side of him, Pipkin and Elmquist are his ballast. Elmquist was a joy to watch, as he coaxed the blues from his guitar, at times slow and mournful, at others jubilant and unfettered. Pipkin’s talents are wide-ranging – during the course of the set, she picked up the acoustic guitar, the fiddle, and the keyboard – and her honeyed voice pulled those of Williams and Elmquist together into the sweetest harmonies.
Playing an extensive mix of songs from all three albums, including their biggest hits like “The One You Should’ve Let Go,” “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” and “Then Came the Morning,” as well as new cuts like “Time’s Always Leaving,” it was more than just a satisfying set – it was the sort of performance that touches deeply and leaves one euphoric over having witnessed it.
Coverage by Colleen Martin & photography by Patrick Gilrane
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