Portland sure loves its Americana. In recent years, plucking, stomping, and howling artists such as Shakey Graves and The Punch Brothers have waltzed into town, sold out Port City Music Hall (or come close), enjoyed a rapturous welcome, and quickly punched a dance card with the much-larger State Theatre for their return. The Lone Bellow came into Portland with this path laid out before them, and if their sold-out concert is any indication, they seem destined for a similar future.
The Lone Bellow are the most promising band of their ilk since The Civil Wars (with whom shared a producer on their first record). Borrowing heavily from the gospel tradition, their songs are bright and soulful, capable of blossoming into startling bouquets of harmonized vocals and bold melodies. Both on record and on the stage, frontman Zach Williams intersperses these raved-up songs with slower numbers that occasionally showcase a Bruce Springsteen-like ear for lyrical detail.
The National’s Aaron Dessner produced their breakthrough record, 2015’s Then Came the Morning, lending it some indie-rock pedigree. Dessner knows how to craft an album that will fill a room, and the band members replicate the feat in concert with resounding vocals down the line, powerful instrumentation, commitment to their material, and sheer force of will as entertainers. This is an absolutely sensational live band.
Expanded from a trio to a quintet for the sake of the tour, the band thundered through “Cold As It Is” and “Then Came the Morning” to open the show. The performance of the latter, in particular, was a remarkable feat – it’s a tricky composition that takes sharp turns and is fleshed out on the album with a string section and vocals that are layered several times over. In concert, they confidently nailed the performance like a gymnastics routine, hinting at an extraordinary amount of pre-tour rehearsal that paid off in this, the first official stop of their Then Came the Morning tour.
As the concert progressed, the material ran the gamut from gospel to country to 1950s-style rock, all arranged with contemporary sensibilities. Williams often shouldered the responsibility of working the crowd, which he managed through his forceful singing and mannerisms that suggested the music was simply sweeping him away. The other two singers may have been even stronger, and each took their turns in the spotlight. Kanene Donehey Pipkin showcased her rich, gorgeous timbre in “Call to War,” while Brian Elmquist gathered the trio around a single microphone to deliver the show-stopping “Watch Over Us.” The sometimes-chatty Port City crowd was so silent during this latter number that you could practically hear the frost gathering on the venue’s front windows.
At one point, Williams hopped from the stage and wandered into this crowd during a gospel-influenced round of call-and-response between the band and the audience. He waved his arms skyward and vigorously clapped his hands, prompting the crowd to do the same. He got about 15 feet from the stage, turned, and briefly watched his band as an audience member might. He must have loved what he saw.
WHAT: The Lone Bellow
WHERE: Port City Music Hall
REVIEWED: Feb. 23