Sunday, November 15, 2015

Concert Review: The Oh Hellos w/ Cereus Bright & Family and Friends @ World Cafe Live - Philadelphia, PA 11/14/15

Imagine Sufjan Stevens doing a duet with Regina Spektor.  Add an Arcade Fire-esque stage ensemble.  Then have them playing pure and honest folk music before it was homogenized by Mumford and Sons.  That is The Oh Hellos.

When all that you know of an artist is their recorded work a concert experience can be exactly that.  An experience.  Sound is something that should not just be collected.  It is not an object that gets dusted off and spun occasionally.  It is something that you have to let become a part of you.  You need to connect.  A recording can not always capture the essence of a spirit.  There is something ethereal that can not be heard.  There is an energy that can not be properly reproduced.  When you witness it live it can be life changing.  What is even more special is when it doesn't just happen with one artist but three.

When I was invited to see The Oh Hellos at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia with Cereus Bright and Family and Friends I decided to go into it blind.  Not completely and not intentionally at first.  I read the bio.  The Oh Hellos are Maggie and Tyler Heath.  A brother/sister folk duo from Southern Texas.  Maybe it's just me but I do not think of Southern Texas when I think of folk.  They have just released their second album 'Dear Wormwood' that was exploring a darker side to their band.  Their music is produced and recorded independently by themselves which was a conscious decision.  When touring they bring a stage full of friends and musicians to emulate their sound.  Over the last two months their sound exploded leading to their live shows selling out.  They had just played a sold out show at The Bowery Ballroom in NYC.  This show at The World Cafe Live in Philly was a sell out as well. This is when I started listening to their latest release.

When I heard the heartfelt tenderness and frailty of their music it did not connect with the description of the live show I had just read.  At that moment I made the decision to turn the music off and experience this live.

I don't know if this is something that you have ever done.  Witnessed a concert as a blank slate. To just go to a concert as a fan of music.  Having now had that experience I completely recommend it.  Having no preconceptions is liberating.  It allows the mind to guide you.  I was attending the concert with fellow My Music, My Concerts, My Life staffer Tom Z. who had no experience with these bands either.  We both were unaware of what was to come.

We arrived at World Cafe Live and took our place in the rear.  There are no bad spots at this venue.  Visually or sonically.  Then nice thing about a sell out at the WCL is they do not pack you like sardines.  They give you room to breath and dance.  It was a young crowd tonight which surprised me.  They appeared to have been already fans.  I wondered if they had seen them before.  If they knew their music or was drawn by the legend of a live show.  They bought shirts and posters.  Then again so did I.  This time a limited edition sold out tour poster that was signed by the band.  We grabbed a beer and waited.  First up would be Family and Friends from Athens, GA.

They took the stage and embraced each other for their pre-concert huddle.  By doing this they made us all a part of it.  They invited us to be part of their family. They started their first song and immediately made the presence heard.  It was a vibe that resonated with the musical ghosts of Athens.

There was an artistic energy.  I think a band like this could only be created in a culturally nurturing environment like Athens, Ga.  They were cut from the same ilk at Jeff Mangum.  No doubt a spirited show like this might not be possible without a band like Neutral Milk Hotel some 20 years earlier.

This seven piece band was having fun and in turn we were having fun.  The drummer, dressed in an Aeropostale onesie, had so much energy he barely sat.  He and their percussionist stood facing each other brandishing their Burundi influenced beats. Their bassist seem to let the energy control him.

With each band member doing their own thing it was visually and musically dynamic.  The apex of their last song led to members of the band switching instruments while still playing.

They left us wanting more. I am afraid to listen to their recorded music because I am not sure it can live up to what I just witnessed.  Next up was Cereus Bright out of Knoxville, TN.

This five piece band had a familiar sound.  A good sound.  I just couldn't quite put my finger on it.  Perhaps the Avett Brothers?  I asked Tom what he thought.  At that moment they started playing their song 'Cereus Bright'.  A song they mentioned gets used for first dances and for proposals.  Tom leaned over and offered this up to me.

 "I was thinking their harmonies were so good they could be The Everly Brothers.  They are what The Jayhawks SHOULD be.  And I am saying that as a Jayhawks fan."

Then it hit me.  They had all of the redeeming qualities of My Morning Jacket without all of the annoying ones.

They were ending their set by saying they were going to rock out the best they knew how.  That they did.  Tom felt we were witnessing a legend in the making.  He said, "When these guys grow up and get some hair on their balls they are going to be killer!"  Amen Tom.

I felt that I had already been taken on a journey and there was still one band to go.  The headliner.  I found myself antsy for their arrival.

Their nine piece unit took the stage.  It was surreal that a band of that size could convey the most chilling and delicate music.  They opened with a track from their new album and the crowd sang along.

Tyler had a great connection with the audience.  He told us they considered this a date.  With the band as one individual and the audience as the other.  Guitarist Joshua Heinlein added that they were talking about Dragons and Poetry whereas we just wanted them to shut up and sing.

Their music evokes imagery of yore.  Their lush voices portrayed tender tales of heat break and sorrow.   Their lyrics were more like poetry of days past.  People do not talk like that anymore.  It's a shame.  Their stories could not have been told better any other way.

It became quite clear of the love the audience had for this band.  It is not a sound that you would hear on the radio outside of NPR but yet these people had found it.  They found it and followed it.  They sang and moved along with the music as if no one was watching.


Maggie and Tyler have incredible voices both in their own right.  Tyler's is soft and telling whereas Maggie's is chilling and emotional.  Together they weave a storied landscape that takes you back in time.

In between songs Tyler kept us all amused with stories of the road.  They were nearing the end of a long tour.  They spoke of their weariness but we did not witness it on stage.

For their last song they invited out their opening acts to join them on stage.  It was pandemonium.  Twenty one members singing and dancing and playing (twenty one performers for the price of $15 that is a crime).

It seemed to be one big happy family.  One that didn't want this to end.  We felt like part of that family.

Maggie and Tyler came back for one more song.  At first alone, then joined by the band.  No one left early.  Everyone's eyes were riveted.

I don't think this is something you can experience through an iPhone or on a CD.  I am not saying not to buy or listen to the music.  You should.  Support the artist that you love so that they can continue to make this music.  What I am saying is that those things can not bring you the experience of a live show.  I have been to shows that bring nothing new to the table.  They play their songs like they appear on the album.  With efficiency and energy.  But at the end of the show it was a live version of their album.  This show was not that.  It was a journey.  A journey that can only truly be followed live.  Next time they are in town you can not afford to miss them.

See you at the next show!


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