Review: The Head and the Heart ft. Whitney

Last Thursday, several thousand people filled the Old National Center for the return of a much anticipated performance. The concert hall was sold out for the night, as The Head and the Heart was performing at the Murat theater, alongside opening act Whitney.

Despite having released their debut album last June, the Chicago six piece Whitney could hardly be called newcomers; the band is composed of indie rock veterans like guitarist Max Kakacek of Smith Westerns fame and singer/drummer Julien Ehlrich from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, along with four other members. Though many in the crowd had admittedly not heard of the critically acclaimed group, front man Ehlrich quickly won the hearts of the audience with his humor and charm. The band’s expertise and tight chemistry solidified their reputation as a talented musical group.

Starting out with “Dave’s Song”, the band swiftly launched into an interplay of guitar runs and bass lines, accentuating Ehlrich’s intimate falsetto alongside Kakacek’s guitar chops. By the third song, “Polly”, the band collectively took a knee, as they stripped down to just vocals and keyboard to “get a little sensual.” This was one of the few tone changes throughout the performance, albeit a brief one. Rising into a horn driven anthem, the song finished with a blaring trumpet solo and many cheers from the audience.

Whitney’s strength lies in juxtaposing Ehlrich’s swooning vocals and lyrics about death and emptiness with jangly indie pop and rockabilly guitar frills, yielding a relentlessly pleasant tone throughout all of their songs. While singer/drummer led bands are uncommon and often don’t translate well into a live performance, the band, encircling the singer and drum set as a focal point, helped to emphasize Ehlrich’s falsetto, which already demanded attention on its own. Through songs like “No Matter Where We Go” and “The Falls”, the band managed to win over the audience, garnering enthusiastic applause. By the time they began their cover of “Magnet” by NRBQ, the crowd was dancing in approval. Closing the show with their single “No Woman”, Whitney  had undoubtedly won many new fans.

As the lights dimmed again, an overhead sign flickered on one word at a time, reading “Signs of Light” in cursive, with The Eagles’ “One of These Nights” playing in the background. Stage decorated with fauna, the orange lights and green neon sign created a “Miami Vice” vibe – an unusual aesthetic for the Seattle-based folk rock group. As The Head and the Heart took the stage, they kicked off the set with “Cats and Dogs” and “Coeur d’Alene”. Between the neon Miami aesthetic and the band’s boisterous delivery of “City of Angels”, it was clear that the audience had been transported out of Indianapolis and onto a sunset beach party.

The band performed their first songs with tremendous energy, and the crowd immediately followed suit, bobbing and dancing as backup singer and guitarist Matt Gervais, clad in a Donald Duck shirt, ran through the crowd. If you didn’t know the band, you probably wouldn’t have been able to tell that Gervais was a recent addition to the group. Recently married to violinist and vocalist Charity Rose Thielen, Gervais joined the band in place of beloved songwriter and frontman Josiah Johnson, who was absent from the tour to focus on recovery. While Johnson was clearly missed, songwriter Jon Russel, donned in leather, took the lead on both vocals and guitar, with Gervais excelling as backup. The group’s camaraderie was apparent throughout their lengthy setlist, which varied in tone yet remained consistently energetic.

Like Whitney, The Head and the Heart is one of those bands that manages to tackle a variety of subjects and moods without straying from their characteristically upbeat indie folk pop charm. As the group slowed down the pace on songs like “Another Story” and “Let’s Be Still”, the crowd swayed beneath a shimmering disco ball like a  giant high school prom crowd. On songs like “Your Mother’s Eyes” and “Winter Song”, band mates demonstrated their skills as pianist Kenny Hensley fingerpicked the acoustic guitar and Charity Rose Thielen commanded attention on the microphone. As Russel mesmerized the audience with his slow electric guitar bends and solo vocals on “Oh My Dear”, Thielen bowed her violin to sound like an electric guitar or trumpet solo, reaching a zenith as the band finished their closing song “Down In the Valley” and exited stage.

With encore inevitable, The Head and the Heart came well prepared. Retaking the stage to perform “Library Magic”, “Shake”, and “Rivers and Roads”, the band tied up their set in a heartfelt and energetic finale, leaving the crowd satisfied and cheering with vigor. By the end of the performance, the concert-goers were definitely pleased, having witnessed hours of impressive musical performances, not easily forgotten.

Photography by Elese Bales.

Setlist:
Cats and Dogs
Coeur D’Alene
City of Angels
Ghosts
Rhythm and Blues
Another Story
Let’s be Still
Your Mother’s Eyes
Take a Walk
Lost in my mind
Winter song
Oh my dear/I don’t mind
10,000 weight in Gold
Sounds like Hallelujah
Down in the Valley
Encore:
Library Magic
Shake
Rivers and Roads

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