It was a little difficult to take Seattle’s The Head and the Heart seriously for their appearance at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall. They can thank Josiah Johnson’s Halloween getup for that. Yes, The Head and the Heart’s vocalist and guitarist opted for the Justin Bieber costume. Hilarious – but also rather terrifying.
The folk band went all out of their sold out Halloween show, tossing candy into the audience, decorating the stage with pumpkins, cobwebs, and tombstones, and wearing costumes that included a skeleton, Bieber, and a pair of Toronto Maple Leafs. They can pander to a crowd; I’ll give them that.
The six-piece were in town to promote the recent release of sophomore album Let’s Be Still and seemed absolutely delighted to be spending their night all dressed up in Toronto. “We do believe this is our first time playing a show on Halloween,” vocalist and guitarist Jonathan Russell – dressed up in a Day of the Dead costume – told the crowd.
Russell and Johnson began the The Head and the Heart five years ago through some open mic performances in their home state of Washington. They signed to Seattle label Sub Pop in 2010 and shortly after released a reworked version of their self-titled debut. It was an album that took them on tour with a veritable who’s who of indie rock, sharing stages with the likes of Dr. Dog, The Walkmen, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, and Iron & Wine. Outside of rampant touring, the six-piece also won over new fans thanks to television and film placements on shows such as Chuck, How I Met Your Mother, and the Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper movie Silver Linings Playbook.
Live, the band’s true highlight is their harmonies – something very much on display during their Toronto appearance. Russell and Johnson complimented each other well and were responsible for the majority of the night’s lead vocal, but also came together with violinist Charity Rose Thielen.
The rest of the band should be complimented as well, pulling off a Beatles-like “Day in the Life” tempo-shift on “10,000 Weight in Gold”. Another Beatles sounding swing came later in the night on the Revolver-esque “Sounds Like Hallelujah”, while one of the night’s biggest songs – the fan favourite “Lost in My Mind” – owed much to the chugging bass from Chris Zasche and a familiar piano refrain by keyboardist Kenny Hensley.
“Honey Came Home”, off of The Head and the Heart’s debut, had the couples in the crowd canoodling as it ended on a slower note with Johnson on acoustic guitar. There were other opportunities for the lovebirds in the crowd to enjoy too, including the violin-heavy “Cruel” which saw Russell call out to the balcony: “You guys slow dancing up there, you’ve got the right idea.” Russell was equally impressive in the vocal spotlight, switching between gentler “ooohs” and a more deep-voiced chorus for Let’s Be Still’s title track. “Ghosts”, off of their first record, was another highlight thanks to its creeping, distinctive bass line from Zasche, ending on a less eerie note with the band belting out a chorus of ba-da-bas.
There were some problems with pacing however, something particularly noticeable during “My Friends”. It’s a strong song, with simple instrumentals lifted higher by the harmonies, but it got lost in its setlist position and didn’t have the impact one might have hoped for.
They picked things back up by the end though, the familiar slow guitar chords of “Rivers and Roads” enough to start a crowd sing-along. Less great was one girl in the audience who took it upon herself to yell out inaudible heckles at the band throughout the song, but it was near perfect on their part – save for Thielen’s emotional solo. She’s a powerful vocalist who’s clearly got a deep connection to the material, but she was also unfortunately sharp. Thankfully it was just a fleeting problem and the song took on its climax with well-executed woahs from the entire band and audience, drummer Tyler Williams giving his kit a sparse but effective pounding near the song’s end.
Thielen returned solo for The Head and the Heart’s encore, this time sans-pink wig but with a guitar and harmonica for “These Days Are Numbered”. The rest of the band joined her for two more songs, ultimately ending the hour and a half set with “Down in the Valley”.
There’s undoubtedly a lot of talent in The Head and the Heart and their moments of grandeur are as good as folk rock gets. They still need to work on pacing and specific moments, but one thing’s for sure – Bieber never sounded this good.