Johnny Brenda’s remains one of my favorite venues in the city of Philadelphia, and when I get the chance to see a band I love there, it’s always a special experience. When Brooklyn’s Big Thief announced the tour following their truly great album “Masterpiece” and I saw that they were coming to Johnny Brenda’s on March 26, I knew I had to be in attendance.
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, New York-based indie rock band Palehound was there to open. Led by singer, guitarist and songwriter Ellen Kempner, the band blends fuzzed-out guitar tones with folky melodies.
Palehound were a real treat to see live. Their recorded music is good, but live the songs just feel so much more alive. Kempner’s laser-focused expressions had her looking like she was in her own world. It always impresses me to see someone expertly wrangle the guitar while singing. Her voice truly captivated the room in a pleasing foreshadowing of what was to come with Big Thief’s set.
Throughout their set list, they played a healthy mix of older and newer songs, some from their upcoming album. “Cinnamon” and “Molly,” both off their debut 2015 album, “Dry Food,” were undeniably fantastic songs to hear live. They were clearly fan favorites, as many people in the audience were singing along. I was surprised, because I didn’t think Palehound were as well-known. It would appear that they have a decent amount of followers in Philly.
I must reiterate how much Kempner shreds. She seriously is a master at her craft. The rest of the band provided solid support as well, especially the bassist who was consistently in the pocket.
It’s refreshing to see a band whose sound is as focused and unique as Palehound’s. Some bands spend a lot of time trying to figure out just who they are, but Palehound clearly know what they’re about. I see a lot of indie bands, some of which are not so great, so it feels like finding a diamond in the rough when you see an act that truly wows you.
Palehound’s sophomore album “A Place I’ll Always Go” drops June 16, so be sure to mark your calendar!
When their time came, Big Thief impressed. “Masterpiece” as an album lives up to the name, as it takes the folk rock genre and morphs it into a product that is reminiscent of other groups but remains unique to the band. The album shifts seamlessly from rock-heavy bangers to evocative emotional pieces with the supremely talented lead singer Adrianne Lenker expertly leading the way. Lenker’s writing is evocative and powerful and her voice as the guiding light is what sets the band above others in a similar vein. It’s almost like a musical oxymoron —powerful but hopelessly fragile, often in the same song or even a single chorus.
In a live setting, the best aspects of the album shine even brighter than in the studio version. Lenker’s voice evokes more raw emotion and has more power, and the contrast between songs is made even more jarring and effective by the performance. The set started out somewhat slow, with the song “Real Love” as a strong standout from the beginning of the show.
“Real Love” functions as a great song but also as a shrunken version of the album as a whole; it’s slow at times but gradually builds into a strong rock-based hook that rejuvenates the song. A few other jams from the album followed, including “Vegas,” a lovely tale of a two lovers on a road trip exploring love and tackling the existential crisis of finding a home in the world.
While the early portion of the show didn’t disappoint, the real show began with the song “Velvet Ring.” Along with the music, the light setup in the venue changed, signalling the crowd was in a for a real show. The band followed “Velvet Ring” with “Humans,” a rock heavy jam that really got the crowd moving. “Humans”, in particular, puts Lenker’s writing abilities on display, and in three short stanzas of lyrics, Lenker poses impressively meaningful existential questions about love and how it relates to humanity, culminating in her crooning “I’m fooling my heart, fooling my heart.”
Following “Humans,” the band played “Parallels,” punching the typically slow track up with heavier instrumentation and louder vocals to give it a rockier, more rounded sound in the live performance. Finally, they followed up “Parallels” with their most famous song, “Masterpiece.” The titular track stands out well on the album but makes double that impact when performed live. The guitar riffs, the percussion and Lenker’s voice all meld incredibly well in both studio and live performances, but the lead singer’s performance live really makes the difference. Her voice carries an unbelievable amount of emotion and the crowd couldn’t get enough.
The encore featured two songs I did not recognize, but the second was an emotionally crushing ballad dedicated to Lenker’s sister, who helped her through what she called “some dark times.”
Big Thief really impressed at Johnny Brenda’s and are on the short list of bands that I think will be huge sooner rather than later. They have a new album, “Capacity,” out June 9, so be sure to check that out as well.