The Band of Heathens | Oriental Theater | 3/29/11

The Band of Heathens kicked off their West Coast tour on Tuesday at the Oriental Theater in Denver. The show also marked the release of the Americana rock band’s new LP Top Hat Crown & the Clapmaster’s Son. Their performance was new tune heavy, and despite a less than full capacity crowd, a good portion of the Austin, Texas band’s cult-like following could be seen singing along to the new songs. A few of which, including “Medicine Man” and “Free Again,” have been in the live repertoire since late 2010.

The boys came out visibly focused and stage banter was kept to a minimum, as this was most likely the debut evening for most of the new songs, and The Heathens wanted to be sure to present them live in all of their musical glory. Top Hat Crown is one of those albums that clicks with the listener from the get go—loaded with a trio of southern style vocals and all you could want in terms of soulful grooves and rocking guitar—it’s instantly catchy.

With John Chipman (drums), Seth Whitney (bass) and Trevor Nealon (keys) holding it down in the backfield, the songwriting trio of Ed Jurdi, Colin Brooks, and Gordi Quist opened the valve and showed the crowd the unbridled musical power of the new songs set free in live performance.

During “Gris Gris Satchel,” a tune “inspired by the great city of New Orleans,” each member of the vocal trio takes to the verses individually and convenes for the harmonious chorus. Featuring Quist on acoustic guitar, Jurdi on keys and Brooks on mandolin, the lyrics exclaim “bonfire on midsummer’s eve/ ashes on my face/ you might fall in love tonight/ or you might fall from grace,” and these lyrics epitomize the effect of a live Heathens show. On the album, this song is pretty damn amazing, but its true potential comes through in a live setting.

An opening rocker of “Medicine Man” gave way to the musical and vocal-soul feel good onslaught of “Should Have Known,” before settling into a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio.” “Somebody Tell the Truth” was strung out in jam glory featuring guitar solos by Jurdi and Brooks, before Nealon took the reigns and steered the tune into a psychedelic extravaganza.

Chipman took a minute to thank the crowd for coming out and to mention how happy the band was to be back out on the road before a powerfully eerie cover of Levon Helm’s “Hurricane” followed by a main staple in the Heathen’s repertoire, the traditional southern work song “Ain’t No More Cane.” Emotion kept pouring the entire night: coming through Brook’s lap-steel on “Maple Tears,” Jurdi’s sentimental vocals on “The Other Broadway,” and the sonic groove of “Gravity.”

A truly amazing band to see live, the inclusion of Top Hat songs marks a turning point for the band in terms of strengthening the quality of each performance, while the live versions allow the songs to blossom. As the Heathens said before bidding the audience goodnight, “thanks for supporting independent music…actually, we’re dependent music- dependent on your support.”

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