The Head and the Heart, Bush Hall, London
Friday 22 July 2011
Any band hailing from Seattle carries the pressure of that city's illustrious musical past as the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and the grunge genre. But indie-folk sextet The Head and the Heart haven't done badly in their attempts to live up to high expectations over the past year. Their self-titled, self-funded debut album sold 10,000 copies purely on word-of-mouth, securing them grass-roots success, a record deal with Sub Pop and the album's re-release this year.
Unfortunately, on record, the band's brand of soulful drum-driven folk is permeated with the same staleness and inauthenticity that infected the Mumford and Sons debut. Live, though, Mumford offer one of the most exciting and uplifting sets around and the Head and the Heart's performances are every bit as compelling.
"Ghosts" is an early highlight of this sweaty gig in the intimate and ornate Bush Hall. If the success of a folk band rested on the number of people shaking unusual instruments with their eyes closed, then this six-piece would take the top spot every time. But aside from the shakers, it's the toe-tapping bar-room-style keys, particularly noteworthy on this number, which mark the band's sound out from the current saturation of nu-folk acts.
Yes there are choral harmonies, yes there are bearded men in vests and cardigans and, yes, there are awkward socio-historic references to eras that are too far removed from the believable experiences of these beautiful young people ("Down in the Valley" – this means you).
But these factors need not detract from stand-out songs such as "Lost in My Mind". It offers a delightfully haunting refrain performed with heart from every band member, their bursting energy overflowing from the tiny, cramped stage into the dancing crowd.
"Rivers and Roads", which ends the main set before the encore, is filled with melancholy beauty. The sadness of separation, longing, loss and change is undeniably poignant, and the plentiful climaxes give violinist Charity Rose Thielen a chance to shine on vocals, providing bite for the otherwise pining harmonies. The band avoids pretension by maintaining a passion throughout. Their sentiments, when experienced in the flesh, are likely to prove as contagious over here as they have done in America.
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