There was a time when the Ryman seemed to be a little confused as to what acts might play out best on the former Grand Ole Opry stage, as bands like Umphrey’s McGee, Alt-J (∆), The xx, and MKTO graced the Mother Church stage (not to say they weren’t all deserving, but all four acts would and have been better served in club and non-seated settings). But after the brief foray into trial and error, The Mother Church has once again become the bastion for country and bluegrass-adjacent music of all iterations, with people flocking to the Ryman in droves at the prospect of seeing them.
The most recent installment of must-see-and-be-seen night of music at The Mother Church was none other than The Head and the Heart’s sold out two-night stand in the midst of the Fall 2016 tour, in support of their recently released Signs of Light LP. If you’re one of the people who inexplicably haven’t listened or seen The Head and the Heart in a while, then you might think that their live set is centered on the ethereal harmonies and fragile emotionalism that serve as the cornerstones for The Head and the Heart’s oeuvre – which is ultimately a more than fair assumption.
That being said, one of the more surprising, more refreshing aspects of The Head and the Heart’s live set is the unabashed glee in performing their evocative songs while creating an exuberantly joyful noise to boot. And what better place to make a “joyful noise” than The Mother Church itself? Despite being faced with the gargantuan task (which was easily surpassed) of going up against Adele just down the street on a Sunday night, The Head and the Heart managed to stave off any doubters and sell out their second consecutive night at the Ryman. Granted, there may or may not be a ton of overlap between The Head and the Heart and Adele fans, but nevertheless, Jonathan Russell and Charity Rose Theilen made a point to express their gratitude and vitality from the onset.
Wasting little time following a brief “hello” and thank you to their audience, The Head and the Heart tore through renditions of “City of Angels,” and the first crowd clap-heavy track of the evening, “Ghosts,” which for as somber a title the song my imply, the prevailing sense of the Ryman crowd was considerably ecstatic. Songs that had one point been associated with bare bones dread and subdued narratives of hope have now been elevated into choral sing alongs of far more mirthful proportions, with “Another Story” serving as case and point, with many a hoot and a holler recognizing the crowd’s adulation for the track.
From that point on, the evening became a proverbial fan fest, as virtually every song was met with a standing ovation in some way shape or form, but most notably whenever Charity took the lead on a verse or chorus – like in “Let’s Be Still,” when whistles and yelps managed to drown out the first two lines of verse. There were a lot of aspects of The Head and the Heart’s expanded live set that were susceptible to being largely overlooked and under appreciated, primarily in the form of the band’s production value. With a stage set adorned with jungle foliage, postmodern orb lights, and neon signage to engage an otherwise erstwhile eye, though moments during the set infinity lighting was projected onto the ceiling that only the most keen of observers might notice.
All in all, The Head and the Heart have come a long way from the days of playing out into the void amongst proverbial whippoorwills and weeds, having streamlined and refined their set into a groove-laden mix of folk and fanfare, all the while maintaining the cornerstones of their live sound. Sure, the presentation might be bigger and wholly unfamiliar to The Head and the Heart shows gone by, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had and joy to be shared at the most current slate of The Head and the Heart shows, but don’t expect many to surpass the exceedingly joyful noise that The Head and the Heart brought to The Mother Church this past weekend, as that was the type of stage they were born to play.