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Summerfest Review: The Head and the Heart

After the exhaustingly fast-paced opening week of Summerfest, I found myself semi-reluctant to make my third pilgrimage to the crowded festival grounds on the first Sunday of the Fest (June 29th). But in my heart, I knew it would be worth my while. So, I made my way to the Briggs and Stratton stage to take in what would be one of the most refreshing listening experiences I have ever had at The Big Gig.

The earth-bound, rustic ethos of The Head and the Heart has captivated an extraordinary number of listeners in the four short years the Seattle band has been around. During their early days, you could most likely find the members of The Head and the Heart strumming their acoustic guitars, stomping their feet, and singing in harmony for customers at local pubs and open-mic nights. Armed with wisdom gleaned from Bob Dylan’s songwriting and The Walkmen’s uninhibited musical energy, the multi-talented alt-folk group eventually piqued the interest of Sub Pop Records and from there, they experienced meteoric success. Their breakout self-titled album became one of Sub Pop’s best-selling debut releases in years. The Head and the Heart’s experiences of growing a substantial listenership from the ground up and having their music take them all over the world fueled their highly awaited second release, Let’s Be Still, in 2013. Although they are often associated with The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons who front today’s folk-revival surge, The Head and the Heart’s music offers up an inspired, panoramic alternative that challenges the boundaries of the genre. Simply stated, they are not just another contemporary banjo-picking and mandolin-strumming Americana outfit.

The instrument-heavy group features Josiah Johnson and Johnathan Russell on vocals, guitars and percussion, vocalist and violinist Charity Rose Thielen, bassist Chris Zasche, pianist Kenny Hensley, and drummer Tyler Williams. (Not to mention the occasional ukulele or tambourine thrown into the mix.) Although they only have two albums under their belts, the Head and the Heart’s live show did not suffer any sparseness. They ripped through 21 of their total 23 songs, beginning with the clap-along “Cats and Dogs” and “Couer d’Alene,” both popular tracks off of their self-titled debut. It was a joy to watch the band come alive onstage, from Thielen’s animated surges on the violin during “Another Story” to the twinkle of the tambourine in “Shake.” Visually, The Head and the Heart let everyone see that they are able to create each detail and each layer of sound in their music with their bare hands and their raw talent.

It’s not often when you encounter a non-local band that loves Milwaukee as much as we do, but it was clear that the members of The Head and the Heart share a special bond with this city. “We love Milwaukee,” remarked singer Josiah Johnson to the hollering crowd, “the Riverside was the best show we played this year.”

Beyond their endearing enthusiasm for our city, The Head and the Heart provided a cozy respite from the bustling bacchanalia of Summerfest. The orchestral swells of “Rivers and Roads” during the band’s encore turned the audience into a choir, singing along to every lyric. The words of the song, “ Rivers and roads, rivers and roads, rivers til I reach you,” seem like a weary cry for a faraway love, but the way it was performed suggested a sense of uplift, as the crowd put their arms around each other and shouted the last lines in a starry-eyed, collective fervor.

In short, The Head and the Heart is a band that fires on all cylinders when performing live. Their homegrown vibe, colorful spirit, and unrestrained passion for music make for a transcendental listening experience. I can’t wait to watch where they go from here, and I’ll be hoping that rivers and roads will bring The Head and the Heart back to Milwaukee soon.

HYFIN Program Director | Radio Milwaukee