As the rest of the band sets up and prepares to play, Evan Stephens Hall walks on the stage at PhilaMOCA. He wears the look of an unabashed man, sporting his own band’s T-shirt tucked into what can only be described as ’70s jogging shorts (you know, the kind Michael Cera wears in “Juno”). The man that first came off as a goof turned out to not only be sincere, but smart. He was, afterall, dressing for a sold out crowd at a venue without air conditioning.
This image of Hall functions as a good introduction to his style of lyricism as the head of Pinegrove; his songs prove to be equally insightful and funny, without ever breaching the realm of the too-cool irony that begets so many indie bands. Backing him are lifelong friends Zack and Nick Levine, Sam Skinner and former band member Nandi Rose Plunkett (who opened as Half Waif). They begin the night with “Visiting,” a song about being at a loss for words that reaches a longing scream in the chorus echoed by the entirety of the crowd. Watching this response, I knew that most everyone in the room had confirmed a thought they brought with them to the show: Pinegrove’s Run For Cover Records debut, “Cardinal,” is one of the best records of 2016.
Coming in at just under 31 minutes, “Cardinal” serves as an argument for brevity in a year where the biggest records are also the most overwrought (looking at you, Drake). The other upside of the album’s length is that you can spend more time focusing on individual songs as a listener. This was made evident from the whole room sing-alongs that echoed with every verse of the tracks Hall and company played off of the new record. The sheer excitement of getting a chance to hear these songs in a live setting was palpable from the first note of each tune.
While the extended audience that comes with signing to Run For Cover Records certainly brought more fans, the growth on “Cardinal” should not be understated. Hall picks up a new tone to his music introducing the slide guitar, which has lead to plenty of comparison to Uncle Tupelo and other alt-country kin. Perhaps the most common comparison Pinegrove receives in critical circles is to that of the diverse collective of artists that are capped under the moniker of “fourth-wave emo.” Though there are signs within the music, it seems to be more of an association between tourmates who are often put (begrudgingly, I may add) within the same categorical box.
I don’t consider Pinegrove to be emo, but if they are, then they certainly take the best parts of the genre with them. The highlight of the night came from the breakdown in album stand-out “Aphasia,” when the crowd chanted, “One day I won’t need your love. One day I won’t define myself by the one I’m thinking of.” And it’s moments like that when the genre-naming and critical associations all fall aside.
Hall’s songs are not only expressive and memorable, but they inspire a certain passion in the fans that can not be understated, and those two combined make for a show you can not miss.