A swirl of voices, hundreds-strong, fill the halls of Tucson’s historic Fox Theater once its doors open for a night of music featuring The Head and the Heart. A folk rock outlet that started making a name for itself just seven years back, the college-age kids of which the primary demo present at the theater that night is comprised, represent a considerably younger populous than the theater, which usually books those around the tenure of Jackson Browne or Boz Scaggs, is particularly used to. Still, they’re particularly well-behaved and poised alongside the mostly eclectic crowd, still featuring older folks in seats and along the aisles once the show would start — ones who would not dare miss a beat as they would stand, sing, and dance along in just as dedicated a fashion as the youngsters.
This is a testament to the widespread appeal that an outlet like Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell’s brainchild, who were nearly immediately signed to Sub Pop Records following the release of their self-titled debut back in 2010 and who made quite the cult splash with songs like “Down in the Valley”, “Lost in My Mind”, and “Rivers and Roads” — all of which would be present for their live performance that night, much to the crowd’s harmonious reception. Who wouldn’t be present that night was obvious, though, with Johnson out of the picture for the band’s ongoing tour as he had checked himself into rehab prior to its beginnings. Especially after offering his voice to the new record, it was a legitimate item to wonder over with how the band, now one frontman short, would be able to handle themselves during this latest live showing.
Following what felt like a considerable wait — though, one might concede that that could’ve easily been the hype talking — Hurray for the Riff Raff came roaring into view with a stage presence engulfing typical perceptions of opener quality. Fronted by the stellar Alynda Lee Segarra, the New Orleans-originated quartet handily got the crowd whet and raucous for the long night of performances ahead with a set equal parts blues and folk, with some reefer rock and Appalachia tossed in for good measure. In particular, the sing-along “Blue Ridge Mountain” got people moving and grooving, but the band — particularly Segarra, with her soaring vocals and crystalline tone not unakin to that of fellow Americana sister Brandi Carlile — did their thing and made it look easily while doing so.
A 20-minute wait for the sake of bringing the headliner’s instruments and hookups into play and we out in the crowd were golden, ready for what was to come and hoping that it would be top-notch. Luckily, despite the physical lack of Johnson during this particular show or this particular tour, Russell, Charity Thielen, and the rest of their ensemble more than picked up the slack in his absence, making sure to retain both the Head and the Heart with an admirable collective of adaptations made that felt nothing like compromise. Unfortunately, one particular problem with sound and how it was mixed with their keyboard synthesizer honestly made a song that could actually be quite the banger come across as obnoxious and shrill (“Turn It Around”), but that’s neither here nor there in the overall reception that came with their otherwise fantastic performance.
The literal “Signs of Light” lit up and they were a-go immediately with a rousing rendition of Jon’s “All We Ever Knew”, which transitioned seamlessly into follow-up track “City Lights”, and while they came in to a warm reception, it was still in the band’s less pop-oriented roots tracks that they deservedly received the greatest positive reactions. Chiming in with “Lost in My Mind” first and foremost, the entire audience erupted into a storm of applause and whistling before standing up and singing along in a surprisingly in-tune fashion.
This continued for most of the night, with notable highlights of a communal vibe being particularly accentuated in the aforementioned trio from a few paragraphs up, with the incredibly generous band giving us not one or two, but three songs in their encore. Charity wrapped things up nicely in a bow as she stretched her vocals with a passion and gusto that makes it obvious why she’s such a fan favorite on “Rivers and Roads” before closing out the night as not a face in sight wasn’t singing along to its rising chorus. Other highlights included a performance from Jon and Charity on the title song from their sophomore release, Let’s Be Still, the delectable harmonies of the serene “Library Magic” from off of their latest, and a markedly dark performance of “Ghosts” from off of their first.
A band like The Head and the Heart joins people together with their tight harmonies and sweeping choruses and manages to make it look easy. Even in the face of such an established member like Josiah Johnson not being present for the show, the band still know that their greatest asset is the strength of the communities that they harvest in a room — no matter how big or small — when they perform. Doing so, in reality, is no easy feat, but with seasoned professionalism and a genuine affection for their fans, they seem to be doing pretty alright for themselves. Our best wishes are with Josiah, who couldn’t be there in person but most certainly was in the spirit of that evening as his bandmates rocked the night.