The Lumineers: Popular “Folk”s

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I recently heard someone say, “I’m so fucking sick of all this goddamn Civil War parade music.”  I knew what they meant… but I didn’t necessarily agree.  With this wave of folk and country Americana being championed by 15-25-years olds across the nation (Cheers to them, for having such taste.) certain “purists,” have been calling BS on certain acts that may rely on a more “popular” and less “traditional” aesthetic, claiming that many of the biggest acts of the genre are reducing folk to its most gimmicky elements… Maybebut that doesn’t necessarily make them bad.  After all, I have quite a love of KISS… despite the fact that, when ranked against the likes of The Stooges, they don’t embody the purist spirit of Rock’N’Roll to nearly such a degree… One of the biggest victims of this criticism is Denver’s The Lumineers… Last year The Lumineers released their self-titled debut, which is currently up for “Best New Artist” and “Best Americana Album” Grammy Awards, to be determined this Sunday… I actually quite like The Lumineers.  They may not be as technically “authentic” as the likes of First Aid Kit, but I think their sound is still quite brilliant (To be honest, I do find The Lumineers to be more enjoyable than First Aid Kit.)  In fact, of all albums released in 2012, their debut is the only one that has found itself in my regular rotation of records in 2013, alongside “standards” from the likes of Joy Division, The Smiths, and Belle & Sebastian…

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Last Thursday The Lumineers played to a sold-out crowd at the Tower Theater, for what turned out to be the best concert Philadelphia is yet to see in 2013.  The audience ranged from those in the single digits to those on the verge of retirement.  But the one thing that was clear of all in attendance was that they were fucking enthralled to be able to experience The Lumineers live.  And the one thing the band made abundantly clear… they know how to put on a fucking “show.” (Vocalist/guitarist Wesley Schultz and drummer/percussionist Jeremiah Fraites even seemed to turn the notion of taking off your hat into a performance art form.)  The audience swooned for the (newly-reinvented-as-a) five-piece as if they were the Fab Four… In fact, I was reminded of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, documenting Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, when the postmodern troubadour was regarded by fans more as a pop star than a prophesizer of cultural collapses (I will note that the title of my interview with Jeremiah that ran on this very site last summer was “Popular Preachers of Sorts.”)  But, regardless of whether fans of The Lumineers fully grasp their politics, they were far from wrong to be enthralled by the performance the band produced.

I have seen The Lumineers before (and I was not disappointed) but, I must admit, I was a bit worried when they decided to churn out their three best songs within the first four songs of the set: “Submarines” (A truly folk tale about the refusal of the “common-folk” to believe in the terrors of the “new world.”), “Flowers in Your Hair” (A song which I once proclaimed, “Rings heavily of Bringing-It-All-Back-Home-era Dylan, explores the notion of growing up and coming to terms with all of the ‘truths’ we had been inundated with via our elders and children’s books and includes a number of bumper-sticker-catchy nuggets of wisdom, most prominently, ‘It takes a boy to live.  It takes a man to pretend he was there.’”) and “Classy Girls” (Possibly their best song, which I, as someone who is prone to drinking and public displays of affection, can identify with to a great deal, existentially… especially when they get to, “Classy girl don’t kiss in bars, you fool.”)

However, just when I think that the evening’s greatest moments have passed, the band pulled a very “punk” (Yeah, I’ll stand by that.) move and, twenty minutes into the set, performed their biggest hit (“Ho Hey”)… instrumental… from the floor of the venue… Yes, Schultz and Fraites, the ingenious performers they are, made their way well into the audience, Schultz strumming a guitar and Fraites commanding “Ho”s and “Hey”s from either side of the room, while they left the vocal duties of their number 3 Billboard hit to be performed by the three thousand in attendance… who didn’t disappoint… Although I’m far beyond the point of being excited to be within arm’s-length of musicians I admire, it was quite the cool performance device… which the crowd ate up.

The band then proceeded through tracks like “Dead Sea,” “Slow it Down,” and “Charlie Boy,” which may not be quite as captivating as their opening numbers but are, nevertheless, some of the catchier folk tracks of recent years.  They even included a perfectly acceptable cover of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (For the record, very few Bob Dylan covers are “perfectly acceptable.”)  This portion of the set also included a brand new, unreleased duet between Schultz and Neyla Pekarek (cellist, pianist, vocalist, player of mandolins, etc.) which displays Pekarek’s captivatingly lovely vocal abilities to a far greater degree than any of the band’s as-yet-released work and may have actually been the evening’s musical highlight.

For the last third of the band’s performance, they ramped the crowd back up to full-tilt again with another rendition of “Ho Hey,” this time including vocals (Which was within thirty minutes of their first performance of the song… That’s kind of “punk,” right?), a performance of their other charting single, “Stubborn Love” (which had them riotously joined by support act and all-around amazing PDX band Y La Bamba), and the cleverly minimalist “Flapper Girl,” which closed out the set.  I will admit that, other than the epic protest-song tradition of “Big Parade,” the encore didn’t exactly cap-off the evening in a glorious fashion (including their own “Morning Song” and a run-of-the-mill cover of The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place”), but, by that point, the band had already achieved their glory in a fantastic fashion, leaving little to be desired.

So I guess my point is… as a card-carrying member of the “Morrissey boi,” club, who also attests to Belle & Sebastian as having the greatest catalogue of any band of the past two centuries, I am proud to say that I am a fan of The Lumineers… Likely the only band whose greatness my Temple students and I will ever agree on… However, I am a bit embarrassed to be so supportive of anyone associated with the Grammys…

(…What… No… Fuck you… I’m not going to say that… Okay… I’m being told that I am required to tell you to watch for The Lumineers, this Sunday, February 10th, at the 55th annual Grammy Awards, only on CBS…)

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.