London – Hoxton Hall is almost out of an Old Curiosity Shop of London venues. The 150 year-old building has acted at one time or other as a music hall, Quaker mission, WWII air raid shelter, theatre, and youth arts centre. On this particular night, it was hosting a sold-out show by The Head and The Heart – an odd setting you might think for a London stopover, on a brief European tour, especially now the band is signed to a major label. Nevertheless, the band looked very much at home against the deep red décor, relentless blue lighting, and equally persistent, if small town, smoke machine (why, oh why: discuss).
The hall is far smaller than you’d expect and, especially, narrower; a feature exaggerated by not one but two balconies arranged around three sides of a constricted rectangle. The benefit of balcony life is that, come early enough, you can grab an amazing bird’s eye view of the band on stage. You’re so close that if it were a punk gig the possibilities for showering band members from on high with beer are tangible. But of course it isn’t. The Head and The Heart’s audience is far too well behaved: focused on mouthing the words to most songs and smiling at their heroes in a mood approaching that of a reverie. Besides at £4.50 for a tiny can of craft beer there ain’t much point in spilling some!
Opening for the Seattle sextet was Paul Thomas Saunders, airing what seemed to be a set of new songs, accompanying himself on a small keyboard for the slow paced, gospel tinged opener and then switching to a venerable electric semi-acoustic guitar for the remaining five songs. Anyone familiar with Saunders’ 2014 debut album, Beautiful Desolation, might have expected a more layered sound but tonight’s effort was laid bare, vocal angst pitted against some angry guitar bursts within a measured set. There is a certain elegiac quality to his work, with shades of Chris Martin about his falsetto runs – though he settled for more visceral territory in the lower register. Towards the end, his vocals became a tad mannered at the expense of diction, but there was still much to admire in his poise and prose. The set ended, or you could say carried on, in the same vein, with a starkly realised song called “Blood.”
While appreciative of Saunders, there was no doubting who the crowd was here for, and despite a cramped stage with more wires across it than standing room, The Head and The Heart attacked its headline set with gusto. Lead single “All We Ever Knew,” from the new album Signs Of Light, was an obvious and popular opener, plotting the band’s transition from folk roots to more of a pop-rock positioning with the ease of immediacy. Punchy drums, from Tyler Williams, led the way on an AOR leaning “City Of Angels,” while Kenny Hensley’s piano was very much to the fore in “Ghosts.” Standing in for Josiah Johnson, Matt Gervais looked like he’d been in the band from day one and combined excellently alongside Jonathan Russell’s earnest tenor and Charity Rose Thielen’s soulful folk tone. The three-part harmonies from the band’s front line are very much its trademark and did not disappoint with the standout “Another Story,” getting the best reaction so far.
With Chris Zasche’s bass picking out fine counterpoints, Williams’ drums always crisply accentuated, and Hensley’s keyboards adding deft fills, the ensemble playing was tight, together, and always expressive. Thielen’s violin added poignancy when needed. The set balanced the newer, rockier material with crowd favourites from the outfit’s first two albums, and it was no surprise that “Let’s Be Still,” “Lost In My Mind,” and “Down In The Valley” were all greeted by a partisan crowd, like long lost friends. Thielen’s vocal really cut through on the first of these, while “Mind” was a joyful foot stomper and “Valley” elicited a mass singalong. The second half of the set was affected by some equipment issues – “the map is knackered” became a consistent cry from the stage – but in no way did this affect the way the audience received the band’s performance.
A three song encore set a perfect seal on the evening, knackered amps or not. Russell and Thielen first delivered a stripped down and tender “Your Mother’s Eyes,” as a duet, and this mood continued as the rest of the band rejoined for the charming “Library Magic,” marking the close bond between them. “There will always be better days” for amplifiers, but who cares when these voices mesh so well!
“Rivers And Roads” made for an impassioned closer, with Jonathan Russell taking on Josiah Johnson’s usual lead with tenderness and warmth. The band announced that it would be back in the UK in January. Bigger and wider venues beckon, for sure. For whatever reason, I’ve never seen a venue clear so fast at the end of a show. It was like three hundred people were late for a train at once. But boy, did they leave happy… except perhaps the amp repair man.
The Head and The Heart’s fall tour continues until 5th December, across the USA and Canada. Details are on the band’s Facebook page. Signs Of Light is available for purchase on iTunes.
Photography by Kevin England.
Tony’s great passion in life is music and nothing gives him more pleasure than unearthing good, original new music and championing independent musicians. His association with Best New Bands brings great opportunities for this. He also writes for Consequence of Sound and is a judge for Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition.
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