On Tour With The Head and the Heart, Indie Rock’s Next Big Thing
Riding along with The Head and the Heart, the Seattle band that’s not quite folk, not quite rock, but definitely the verge of going huge by doing it the old way.
It’s day two of the tour, cold rain blowing in the towering green shadow of Fenway Park, and The Head and the Heart’s pugilistic father-figure tour manager is pissed. The band’s bus—literally their home for the next two weeks—has blown some part or another and is at a mechanic 30 minutes outside of town, a distance that grows farther and farther as rush hour looms. Worse, asleep inside are four of the band’s six members, and they have a radio showcase to play. My own truck is commandeered for a rescue, no matter that it doesn’t technically hold enough passengers, and I’m dispatched with a stern look clearly indicating returning so much as one musician shy will not go well.
Off I go.
Founded in 2009, the group formed via a series of meetups at a bar’s open-mic night, even including the bartender as their bass player. From playing local shows and giving out burned CDs, they soon found themselves signed to indie super label Sub Pop, critical darlings, and on the road with established acts like Iron & Wine, Vampire Weekend, My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie, and Dave Matthews Band, converting their fan bases. Last year the band released their sophomore Let’s Be Still, topping the Billboard folk and indie charts and scoring a respectable 10th spot on the Top 200.
Describing the band’s sound is harder than it should be. Not quite folk, not quite rock, they seem born of the Americana wave, what with their violins and piano (which hides a keyboard, to be fair) and acoustic guitars. There’s a Summer of Love psychedelic vibe, both with the energy in the room and in the way singer/guitarist Josiah Johnson jumps into the crowd to hug and high five while crooning along with fellow front folks Jonathan Russell and Charity Thielen. Bartender-cum-bass player Chris Zasche bobs at the knees and waist in the background, physically wresting notes from his instrument, while Tyler Williams may well be the most enthusiastic drummer of all time, making up for piano/keyboard player Kenny Hensley’s mellow yet intense demeanor.
Perhaps that’s their secret—they embody all things, yet somehow remain altogether their own.
There’s an authenticity to seeing a band that has rolled up to your town in a bus, road-weary and likely hung over, laundry-deficient yet still willing to, as Thielen belts in their track “Summertime,” sing as your canary bird. Unless you’re at the level of a Timberlake or T Swift, there is little glamour to be found on tour, private jets waiting post-show to whisk you to whichever home bed is closest. For The Head and the Heart, “home bed” means a narrow coffin in which to sleep, uncomfortably close to the vices and personal hygiene of bandmates and road crew. These are modern-day minstrels, trolling late-night highways to bring their art to your door.
It’s easy to get lost in it, the day-to-day blur: Another morning another town another truck stop. The repetition is almost hypnotizing; check in, sound check, cold cuts or a Sterno-heated catered dinner, perform, load out, have a drink. Do it all again tomorrow. Equilibrium, luckily, is eventually found… The band are pros, and manage to stay aware of the world around them, as evidenced by Williams’ quip, to a Providence, Rhode Island, police officer aggressively clearing out photo-and-autograph seekers after a show: “I can’t breathe.”
We live in a digital age, where “word of mouth” no longer means “from the lips of a friend or co-worker,” but instead shared text or photos on our devices. Long gone, or so it seems, are the days of hardworking musicians trucking cross-country in their (now extinct) E-series vans, schlepping gear and hammering flyers to slowly forge a following. Now all an up-and-coming act seemingly has to do is develop their social-media followings and drop copious self-produced singles directly upon millions of potential ears.
Not that carving out a digital niche is any simpler a task, but there’s something Quixotic about a working band literally building their sweat equity on the road and in dingy clubs.
Oh, bands are stilling racking up the miles, of course. The best, or at least most successful, are bridging the gap between punk-rock DIY ethos and social-media savvy. The Head and the Heart are one such hybrid.
To say that they approach their music as a business is selling them very much short creatively, but it would also be negligent not to mention just how invested the Seattle group is. For many bands, touring the world and selling out multi-thousand-seat theaters is an all-encompassing feat unto itself—tasks such as designing and ordering merch are left to management. Yet The Head and the Heart remain very much involved.
They’re involved with their fans, too. On a bitterly cold afternoon in Northampton, Massachusetts, half the band split off to watch football at a local pub around the corner from the venue. Predictably, even in a college town the group attracted some eyes, as fans sussed them out for autographs and selfies, not one of which did they waver in enthusiasm for. Perhaps that’s where a band that’s “making it” differs from one that is merely “on the verge”… The ability to thrive on an energy exchange between themselves and their audience.
And there’s no shortage of energy.
It’s an energy they harness and bring to a rousing, give-and-take stage show, and one they hope to bottle again as they take a hiatus from performing through much of next year to focus on another new album. From the ecstatic looks splayed across the audience's faces as they closed this run of sold-out shows at Nashville's historic Ryman Theater and San Francisco's Masonic, anticipation and excitement will have done nothing but grow.
See you out there.