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Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Head and the Heart lights up the Orpheum

The Head and the Heart returned to Madison this week to perform at the Orpheum for two nights. On Tuesday, I watched as both the balcony seating and general admission enjoyed a continuous influx of people all waiting in anticipation to see the indie band take to the stage.

Whitney, a band from Chicago, opened the show on a high note. They played a few tracks off their recently released album, Lights Upon the Lake, offering a unique combination of indie and psychedelic sounds. Lead singer and drummer Julien Ehrlich worked the stage with intense percussion skills and quick wit, telling the crowd, “If you wanna dance, you could give it a shot.” The real standout from the band, though, was trumpet player Will Miller. I love when bands incorporate trumpet into their sound, and the audience must too, because they cheered in approval whenever Miller soloed. They endured a somewhat awkward moment when Ehrlich stopped the band mid-song in order to adjust his drumset, but they recovered quickly and continued with the set.

Whitney’s upbeat, eccentric music provided a good transition for the main event. When the lights in the Orpheum dimmed, claps and shouts filled the theatre as The Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” played from the speaker. In the backdrop, each word in the sign, “Signs of Light”—both the name of The Head and the Heart’s third album and their current tour—lit up in time with the song’s guitar strokes. The Head and the Heart took to the stage, diving right in with the song “All We Ever Knew,” a single on Signs of Light.

They spread high energy effortlessly around the room, no strangers to the stage. The set alternated between tracks from Signs of Light and older songs from The Head and the Heart and Let’s Be Still. Although the band performed songs like “City of Angels” and “Rhythm & Blues” with enthusiasm, they were truly at their best when they returned to the folky sound they began with back in 2009. The band crushed the song, “Another Story”—my personal favorite from Let’s Be Still. Frontman Jonathan Russell’s powerful vocals combined with Charity Rose Thielen’s violin emphasized the band’s passion for their music.

Love and admiration were in the air, particularly for Thielen, who also serves as a lead vocalist. The audience cheered each time she took over on vocals, particularly in the slower, quieter track, “Winter Song.”

There were indeed “signs of light” on the stage as well. Tiki torches and spherical lights adorned the stage. Shades of violet, turquoise, sky blue and red washed over the band with each song to highlight the recurring theme of light present in many of their newer tracks. Fake trees sat behind the band, evoking imagery from Signs of Light’s album artwork.

The Head and the Heart ended their main set with “Down in the Valley.” This is one of my favorite songs, and undoubtedly my favorite from them, so it was incredibly special to hear them perform it live. The rest of the theatre and I sang along with them as they played, uniting everyone in a comfortable, positive space.

The band left the stage to a standing ovation. The crowd remained on their feet, their claps and cheers unbroken for over a minute, willing the band to come back for an encore. Jonathan Russell returned to answer the call, armed only with an acoustic guitar. He played a stripped-down version of a song, “Your Mother’s Eyes,” which Russell described as a lullaby. While I like The Head and the Heart’s new album, one of my complaints about it was that it used too much instrumentation and processing, so it was nice to hear that song acoustically.

The Head and the Heart ended the encore with “Rivers and Roads,” combining powerful harmonies, punctuated piano notes and percussion to bring the show to a climactic conclusion. As I headed home from the Orpheum that night with ears still ringing and a smile on my face, I looked up to find a starry night sky. Part of me wants to believe that The Head and the Heart’s show had something to do with those little lights.

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