Chicago – 2015 was a the year X Ambassadors broke into the mainstream. The New York band could be heard at every turn, with “Renegades” playing on TV in a Jeep commercial and songs like “Unsteady” playing on the radio. The foursome toured extensively, played a handful of festivals, including Bonnaroo, and released their debut album VHS. How could 2016 possibly top that? Well, supporting Muse on the Drones Tour, for starters!
I last caught lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Harris, his brother and keyboardist Casey, guitarist Noah Feldshuh, and drummer Adam Levins at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, where they were opening for Milky Chance. This time around the boys were on a much bigger stage, performing at the United Center, which is home to both the Chicago Bulls and the Blackhawks. Seeing these four in an arena was pretty amazing. Their hard work has definitely paid off.
The guys started the night out with “Loveless.” Each stood close to the edge of the circular stage, standing like the points of a compass, in darkness, until red and purple lights began to illuminate them. Eventually Sam Harris would leave his spot, making his way around the stage. He’d stop to sing directly to fans up front, occasionally getting down on one knee. During “Hang On,” he raised a hand in the air and fans followed suit. Casey Harris danced wildly at his keyboard, especially during “Love Songs Drug Songs,” when he jumped up and down, looking a bit like a mini Michael Jordan at home in the United Center.
Of course X Ambassadors performed the song that has been dominating air waves the last few months: “Unsteady.” Back in June, when I interviewed the band at Bonnaroo, I asked what inspired this heartbreaking tune. Sam told me the song is about his and Casey’s parents getting divorced. Harris said, “I was a little bit uncomfortable when I decided to make the song about that… I felt like everyone’s parents get divorced. Who am I to say anything about it, it’s not a big deal? But I think precisely for that reason, I decided that was why I had to write.” As a child of divorce, I related to that all too well. Given the success of the song and the reaction from the United Center audience, I’m clearly not alone.
The guys also performed “Gorgeous.” Those in the room who knew the words sang along. When Sam hit the high note in “Gorgeous,” the crowd burst into applause. Cheers echoed through the stadium. Next up was “Renegades.” Sam told the audience, “We want you to sing along with us on this next one. If you know the words sing as loud as you can.” The crowd sang along loudly, especially during “hey, hey, hey.” Sam shouted, “Show us some love Chicago!” Screams burst from around the stadium. Sam danced around the circular stage and sang, “All hail the underdogs / All hail the new kids,” which seemed so fitting given how far they’ve come as a band. People standing in the pit waved their hands in air. Towards the end of the song, Sam played drums with Adam Levins, hitting the tom and cymbals.
X Ambassadors ended the night with “Jungle.” Sam played a killer guitar, again making his way around the stage, stopping to jam out with Noah. Later he picked up his saxophone, earning more applause from the crowd. After “Jungle,” much of the audience gifted X Ambassadors with standing ovations. It was then I saw a familiar face, standing up and clapping enthusiastically. It was Noah’s Uncle Dan! I met Dan at the Aragon show. There he was solo, but this time around he had an entire row of family at the United Center. Dan, his wife, and kids were decked out in X Ambassadors t-shirts and hoodies, proud as could be. In my last X Ambassadors review I wrote “given fans’ reactions and their remarkable, energetic performance, it’s safe to say it won’t be long before these four are selling out stadiums and arenas.” Well, as I told Dan that evening, the Drones Tour is preparation for just that. I look forward to the day when X Ambassadors are playing their very own arena tour… I’m pretty sure it’ll be here sooner than you think!
X Ambassadors are currently on tour with Muse. The band will be touring throughout 2016, including performing on the Parahoy! Cruise and at Sasquatch and Hangout Music Festival. A list of tour dates can be found on the X Ambassadors Facebook page.
Photos by Sarah Hess for Best New Bands
After attending The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Sarah went on to study education at Dominican University, earning a degree in history. When not teaching, writing, or taking in a show, she is most likely to be found with a camera to her eye or hanging out in a darkroom.
You can follow Sarah Hess on twitter at @Sarahhasanh and view her music photography on her website: smhimaging.com.