The Head and the Heart are one of those bands that, appropriately, stay in the back of your head and keep a place in your heart. Existing within the same vein as The Decemberists or Iron & Wine, the Seattle–based band has been a staple of the folk revival, with flannel shirts, acoustic guitars, and music both melancholic and cathartic. After headlining the Radio 104.5 Block Party at Xfinity Live! in August, the band returned to Philly on Oct. 8 for more music and fellowship.
Rather than an outdoor venue like Xfinity Live!, The Head and the Heart performed at The Met, a renovated opera house that has attracted bands from Bob Dylan to Social Distortion since it reopened late last year. Apart from a small pit, most of the audience had assigned seats, which they remained dutifully in until the headliners came on. A few small children would periodically run down the aisles to be closer to the music before being held back by their guardian, who encouraged them to sing and dance in place instead.
Opening band Illiterate Light were a fantastic, but unusual, choice. Rather than the softer indie rock played by The Head and the Heart, the Virginia–based duo performed mostly blues and garage rock in the vein of other famous duos like Black Pistol Fire and The Blue Stones. A brief acoustic interlude appealed more to the softer, folkish music of the headliners, and towards the end of their set, they explained that they had known The Head and the Heart for about three years before being invited to come along on this tour.
A strong beginning with “Living Mirage” was quickly supplanted by confusion and concern as crowd members in the pit tried to flag down security guards and band members alike. Someone had fainted in the pit, and lead singer Jonathan Russell jumped off the stage to examine the scene. The band decided to vacate the stage while the woman in question was taken out of the pit. Once things had settled from the audience side, they returned to boisterous applause and, effectively, a second opening with “All We Ever Knew.”
Over the course of the next hour and a half, The Head and the Heart performed eighteen songs across all four of their albums. They spoke very little between songs, preferring seamless musical transitions. The introduction to “Ghosts,” featuring a solo piano riff from keys player Kenny Hensley, received particularly strong applause. Normally, the absence of anecdotes or other spoken transitions can be irksome, but it felt right at home here: the band was letting the songs speak for themselves, rather than giving a canonical account of the meaning of each one.
A place like The Met, a largely seated venue, is the perfect setting for a band in The Head and the Heart’s vein. The audience preferred gentle swaying and soft singing to enthusiastic dancing or shouting the lyrics back to the band, who were carefully arranged on raised platforms to take up most of the stage. Acoustically, although many band members switched instruments over the course of the evening, the vocals and instruments all sounded crisp, and the levels well–adjusted.
The Head and the Heart make comfort music. The instrumentation is balanced between electric guitar, acoustic, and keys to appeal to fans of folk, country, indie rock, and all surrounding genres; about the only thing that can make each individual member’s vocals more pleasing is when the other band members harmonize with them. Even in the lyrically sadder songs, there is a sense of camaraderie exemplified in a live setting: no matter what each individual audience member may be going through, they are not alone.
Unlike many bands that choose to end their encore with a rousing crowd–pleaser, The Head and the Heart took the more subdued path with “Rivers and Roads,” a sleeper hit off of their self–titled debut album that describes the physical separation of two friends. As Russell and co–vocalist Charity Rose Thielen repeated the refrain, “Rivers and roads / Rivers and roads / Rivers til I reach you,” the instruments began to drop out until all that could be heard was the surprisingly–in–tune harmony of vocalists and audience members singing together in unison.