Zooey Deschanel
Zooey Deschanel / Photo: Michael Bialas

She & Him & Them (Sunflower Bean) Deliver Sounds of the Season

When She & Him follow Sunflower Bean into Denver for shows promoting new albums during an unseasonably warm late spring, this twofer only means one thing, it’s getting hotter in here.

Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson
She & Him
Fantasy Records
22 July 2022
Headful of Sugar
Sunflower Bean
Mom + Pop
6 May 2022

Who knew two seemingly disparate acts — She & Him and Sunflower Bean — could find something in common on the road — in Denver of all places. The Colorado destination some sophisticates still regard as this Dusty Ol’ Cowtown manages to draw acts obscure and renowned, often as a stopping-off point between the Midwest and the West Coast. The Beatles played Red Rocks, Bruce Springsteen found glory days at snowy Mile High Stadium, and the Grateful Dead were smokin’ in Boulder’s Folsom Field, where the music seemingly never stopped. 

Yet, there were memorable Denver-area shows in the early ‘80s that shined a light on bands just seeking a ray of hope. Talking Heads burned down the house at Rainbow Music Hall. X marked the spot with two shows in one night (until John Doe’s voice gave out) at Sam’s Old Town Ballroom in Fort Collins. U2 gave an encore performance at a basketball arena on the University of Colorado campus the night after reigning during a career-defining Red Rocks Under a Blood Red Sky rain-soaked outing.

Who’s to judge which performance remains forever ingrained in one’s brain? 

So with the Summer of Love 2022 officially underway, let’s embrace two acts, playing two days apart on the two hottest days in the Mile High City so far this year. They deserve an equal amount of affection despite the imbalance of power, and discrepancies in name recognition, musical connections, and career experience. 

One is a fairly established duo of 40-somethings, the rare hybrid that makes pretty and gritty work. This cool coupling of entertainers with a different cult of personality have spent much of their time closer to the Pacific Ocean than each other (She in Los Angeles; He in Portland, Oregon).

The other is an indie alt-rock power trio of twenty-somethings based in New York City, with two former high school buds from Long Island who found a performing-arts student that looks like a model (because she is, starting both careers as a teen), and brings new meaning to a glam profession.

M. Ward
M. Ward / Photo: Michael Bialas

Who Are They?

Just call She & Him the Mod Couple. Quirky/charming/stylish singer-songwriter-actor Zooey Deschanel, an unabashed throwback and romantic,  and droll/folky/funky/collaborative guitarist-producer-songster M. (as in Matt) Ward were just beginning their 2022 tour in a classic setting, the Paramount Theatre. The 13 June show was the group’s first performance in Denver during a duo career that officially began when Ward-produced debut album Volume One was released in 2006, with tunes primarily written by Deschanel. Sixteen years later, the song selections are focused on neither She nor He. Most on the set list were written by Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson. (More on him and their new project later.)

Leading Sunflower Bean are vivacious vocalist-bassist Julia Cumming, guitarist extraordinaire-singer Nick Kivlen and fearless drummer-recording engineer Olive Faber, a former jazz saxophonist whose recent self-discovery led him to tell Rolling Stone that during the pandemic “I realized I was trans.” At the end of the road for this series of gigs, they returned to Denver after a four-year absence. The final stop was as headliners at the historic Bluebird Theater — maybe known more for showing porn before becoming a respectable venue for up-and-coming acts.

Yet it seemed like the right place at the wrong time, resulting in a sparse turnout and closed balcony on 11 June. Only hours before the gig, scheduled opening act Liily canceled their final appearance of this tour because of COVID-19 concerns. And on the same night at 1stBank Center, a far bigger joint up the Boulder Turnpike, Jack White likely became a One-Man Blue-Haired Wrecking Crew, cranking out numbers from his latest solo album, Fear of the Dawn

That’s OK, though. Despite the recent PopMatters pan, Sunflower Bean should pick up more steam (and fans) along the way with their new album — Headful of Sugar — that was released on 6 May. Learn more about that in this breakdown of two divergent acts finding their own distinctive ways to turn up the heat in Denver as a simmering summer approached. Remember, in a city dying to see the Colorado Avalanche bring home the Stanley Cup, there are no losers here, only memories that could last a lifetime. 

For Openers

Sunflower Bean
With Lily unavailable, Denver’s Justin Alvarado tried to come to the rescue as the show opener known as Big J. Beats. Called a “marksman behind the beat machine” by Ultra5280, he handled his 30-minute set efficiently, keeping the crowd pumped up just enough to get them primed for the main attraction.
Heat index: 🔥🔥

She & Him
Not to be confused with the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, JEMS the band are an alternative folk trio based in L.A. With eyes closed listening to the three-part harmonies of Jessica Rotter, Emily Colombier, and Sarah Margaret Huff,  listeners might think they’re hearing the Wailin’ Jennys, Canada’s gift to the gods. But with voices that soar into the heavens, these polished gems can become our own Angels in America.
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥

Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming
Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming / Photo: Michael Bialas

Project Management

Sunflower Bean
Headful of Sugar (via Mom + Pop), Sunflower Bean’s third full-length album following the release of Human Ceremony (on Fat Possum in early 2016) and 2018’s Twentytwo in Blue (signifying the ages of the group’s members then), is filled with nods to rock’s halcyon times. Produced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jacob Portrait, the LP’s message is in the title, according to Kivlen, who states in a press release: “This is about fast pleasures, the sugar of life, the joy that comes with letting go of everything you thought mattered.”

Ten of the 11 tracks were performed in Denver, with standouts including the refreshingly summery “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” and “Who Put You Up to This?” When performed live, the latter, which Cumming has said is about “getting away without running away,” was a mix of her serenely dreamy vocals complemented by Kivlen’s screeching, churning electric guitar and Faber’s brief but rollicking song-ending drum solo.  

Though there apparently are no Beach Boys tributes in the works for Sunflower Bean, Cumming has noted in the past that the California Boys were a musical influence, and shared her devotion to the band’s co-founder with Dazed. In early high school, I had a shrine to Brian Wilson and the album Smile [the lost record that was resurrected with The Smile Sessions in a 2011 compilation],” she told the digital outlet in 2016. “The song that moves me most is the Beach Boys’ ‘Our Prayer’ — the first time I heard it I was about 13, and it blew my mind about what pop music could be.”
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

She & Him
While their new album Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson (via Fantasy Records) won’t be released until 22 July, ten of its 14 tunes were heard in Denver, including nine in a row to open the show. Though others on the set list included selections from their first three studio albums of original tunes (Volume One, 2010’s Volume Two, and 2013’s Volume 3), it’s hard to beat Deschanel (on ukulele) and Ward’s rendition of the Beach Boys classic from Pet Sounds — “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. About the songs recorded during the pandemic, the duo said in a release, “The obscure ones hit us just as hard as the more popular songs — and all are ripe for re-imagining, re-interpreting, and re-inventing.”

Wilson, Deschanel’s “biggest musical hero”, turned 80 years old on Monday, just days after a Red Rocks appearance that included “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. Despite experiencing struggles throughout his life, the Grammy Award winner and accomplished musician wrote and recorded off and on with the Beach Boys while maintaining a solo career that has included tour stops on a regular basis since 1999. He gives his blessed endorsement to the She & Him project in this release quote: “Zooey and Matt did such mind-blowing versions of our songs. The harmonies are beautiful and right on. I love this record!”
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Sunflower Bean's Julia Cumming
Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming / Photo: Michael Bialas

Weather or Not

Sunflower Bean
After their first three songs, lead singer Cumming shared with the cheering crowd what others were feeling on the 100-degree day that tied a Denver all-time high for 11 June: “I’m starting to sweat under these lights. That means it’s summer.” Next up were “Moment in the Sun” (her nomination for “song of the summer” while sounding like the best of Debbie Harry) and “I Don’t Have Control Sometimes” (giving off St. Vincent vibes in another time-of-the-season track that’s toastier than a Fourth of July marshmallow). Then Cumming ratcheted up the theme a few notches. Eliciting laughs and more hurrahs from the audience, she offered, “The manager brought me the towel, so that’s how you know I look like shit.”
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

She & Him
A terrific singer with her own angelic voice, Deschanel can be a sly devil at times, even when she’s not trying. Such was the case after an unseasonably sizzling afternoon in Denver, where it hit 99 degrees, nearly matching the record-tying scorcher two days earlier. During the set’s second half, Deschanel topped off their lovely Volume One ballad “Change Is Hard” (accompanied by Ward’s acoustic slide guitar) with a dramatically stirring conclusion. Then the TV and movie darling got a big reaction with a little small talk that seemingly came out of the bluebird skies of Colorado. “It was hot out today, huh?” she asked, rhetorically — or was she actually seeking affirmation? Only Zooey knew for sure, and this New Girl in town certainly didn’t want anyone to see her sweat.
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥

Sunflower Bean's Olive Faber
Sunflower Bean’s Olive Faber / Photo: Michael Bialas

Exchange of Heart

Sunflower Bean
Betraying the demeanor of a cool rock chick occasionally portrayed in films (the best may be Brie Larson as Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), the affable Cumming chatted early and often with members of the audience, and not just about the weather. She wished one man a “Happy Birthday” while telling him, “I hope we’re playing some songs that you like tonight.” While the Bluebird didn’t come close to reaching half its listed 500-person capacity, the band executed like they were performing before a full house at the Ogden or Fillmore, two considerably larger venues to the west on Colfax Avenue. Twenty minutes into the show, after playing a riotous “Roll the Dice” off their new LP, she cordially extended this invite to the crowd: “Feel free to move forward; feel free to stay back there; do whatever you like; it’s always great to see you.” For Sunflower Bean, it was a “win, win, win, win” situation.
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

She & Him
While Ward generally stayed in the shadows during the show, keeping his comments short and spicy, Deschanel was a real sweet talker, and always in the spotlight. After his blues-cruising lead vocal on their rendition of Wilson’s “Don’t Worry Baby”, Ward seemed caught off guard by the enthusiastic reception from the seated audience. “Hey, thanks a lot Denver,” he offered graciously, earning more whoops and hollers. Putting it in proper perspective, Deschanel countered with, “I think the thing about playing a show, all you have to do is say the name of the city you’re in.” While He shouted, “Denver! Denver!”, She refused to back down, a comedic Californian eager to get in the last word — for the last laugh: “But if you say Chicago, nobody’s listening. … New York! New Orleans! Santa Barbara?”
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥

Err Guitar Force

Sunflower Bean
While proving he can write and sing smooth mid-tempo numbers such as “In Flight”, Kivlen was in all his electric-shock-rock resplendence on other Headful of Sugar songs like “Post Love” and headbanger “Beat the Odds”. But his real chance at feedback fury was interrupted when Cumming quickly shut him down with a set list double-check at the 38-minute mark. Calmly getting her choice confirmed after the false start, she turned to the audience with a tease to please: “Nick lost his ability to read for one second. Can we have some applause for Nick?.” Her message was well received by a clap-happy crowd, no matter if the slight jab (possibly?) tied into the song that finally got played — a 2017 single that landed on Twentytwo in Blue called “I Was a Fool”. 
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥

She & Him
Even with a uke, tambourine, or shaker in hand, Deschanel realizes that her voice is what she brings to the table while Ward supplies the bread and butter instrumentally. Between two She & Him songs with Wall of Sound vibes and girl group vocals — “I’ve Got Your Number, Son” (from Volume 3) and Volume One’s “I Was Made for You” (which brought to mind a rock ’n’ rolling Linda Ronstadt), the smooth-sounding songbird addressed the crowd to reintroduce her performing partner. “Matt is constantly switching guitars because he’s that cool,” she pointed out, adding to the laugh lines. “Yeah, Matt! You guys know Mr. Matt Ward?” They certainly did by then, since the concert was nearing the one-hour mark. About 15 minutes later, during the encore that was interrupted only by another instrumental switch that Ward blamed on a malfunctioning “cheap” guitar, the madcap ad libber went back to her deadpan delivery for the patient patrons: “While he’s switching guitars, how was your night?” 
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

Return to Glory

Sunflower Bean
Two songs in seven minutes wrapped up the night, but the events before and after they played “Somebody Call a Doctor” (the first song on 2015’s Show Me Your Secrets EP) and new, heavy metal-ish track “Shake” provided the most pleasant surprise from a soaring presence who seems genuinely grounded. If there were any doubts about Cumming’s kind persona, they were all washed away heading into the encore, when she announced, “I got some family [including a cousin from Albuquerque] here tonight,” before spotting a cherished relative behind the soundboard on one of the few stools available for venue seating. “Is that my Aunt Cathie? I thought I saw you back there!” she cheerily screamed. “I love you so much!”

Afterward, aunt and niece reunited at the merch table, where the two Cummings caught up while Julia signed autographs and took photos with fans. Cathie Cumming, who lives in Colorado Springs after growing up on the East Coast, smiled broadly while getting nods of approval from nearby bystanders upon asking them, “Did you enjoy the show?” The likely response? “Hell, yeah!” For anyone who ventured elsewhere this night, there will be more chances to see Sunflower Bean in November and December, including 6 December at the Summit in downtown Denver. Don’t make the same mistake twice, though, or you’ll feel hotter than Hades. 
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥 

She & Him
While polite but casual spectators sat on their hands throughout most of the show, it only took a few ooh, ooh, oohs from Deschanel and L.A. backing vocalists Jessica Rotter (from JEMS) and Sara Mann to make them take a stand. On a main floor filled with fannies in seats (the mezzanine and balcony were closed), it all started with a guy spotted in the eighth or ninth row — during the regular set’s 19th and concluding number, “In the Sun” from 2010’s Volume Two. Of course, that created a tidal wave of emotional acclamation and the requisite standing O to earn an encore. With only the double-featured stars returning to the stage, Deschanel was neither embarrassed nor overwhelmed by the adulation. “I like that you guys are standing. Well, sit down, and then we can get you up again,” she said, drawing guffaws. Following their gentle but soulful cover of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”, the full band — also including drummer Daniel Hunt, bassist/guitarist Luke Ydstie, and keyboardist Alia Farah — returned. 

It couldn’t get much better — or sweeter — than the group’s rousing version of one last Brian Wilson song — “Do It Again” — followed by two more Volume One numbers. The sprightly “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” (with piano, doo-wops, and bunny hops) preceded “Sweet Darlin’”, the grand finale that ended with Deschanel and Ward side by side at the organ. With more September dates on the East Coast just added to She & Him’s Melt Away tour calendar, don’t believe it when someone says, “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.” Zooey & Matt & Brian are a combination that bears three-peating.
Heat index: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Nick Kivlen
Sunflower Bean’s Nick Kivlen / Photo: Michael Bialas
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.
SUBMIT SUBMIT