23rd November | SWX
Photos: Craig Simmonds
“That last song was about anxiety and this next one’s about death – Saturday night, yeah!” Julien Ehrlich, the lead singer and drummer for indie-folk ensemble, Whitney, exclaims in between songs.
They’ve hopefully sussed that even with their most melancholic music, the crowd at SWX will respond rapturously. No matter whether the band croon softly over the piano-tinkling ‘Light Upon The Lake’ from their so-named debut album, or they embrace jangly rock ‘n’ roll on ‘Dave’s Song’, they are met with whoops and cheers. The audience has chosen to spend their Saturday night listening to mostly-sad songs, after all. What a welcome to the UK for the Chicago natives, who kicked off the UK leg of their tour, which culminates next week at a sold-out show at London’s Roundhouse.
As Ehrlich reminds us, the last time Whitney played Bristol was on the good ship Thekla. However, thanks to the release of their acclaimed new album, Forever Turned Around – possibly, if possible, an even more lugubrious effort than their debut – they have graduated to a larger venue in the city. Large enough to comfortably fit a big crowd, it has unexpectedly better sound than a fair few stages in Bristol, as well as a spacious enough stage to fit a collective as large as Whitney’s.
Although Whitney itself consists only of Ehrlich – who joins an elite class of drummers-as-lead-singers which also includes The Eagles’ Don Henley and Phil Collins after Peter Gabriel left Genesis – and guitarist Max Kakacek, their touring band feel very much part of the act. They are all brimming with charm, charisma and a love for the music they’re playing. Ehrlich does almost all of the talking, except when he has to adjust his drumkit and an awkward hum ensues; keyboardist Malcolm Brown takes over the crowd banter duties.
Judging by audience reaction, the real MVP of the show is Will Miller on trumpet, who’s also the producer and arranger for jazz collective, Resavoir. Every time one of his soaring trumpet hooks enter a song, they magnetically draw all attention towards it, providing emotional crescendos, moments to cheer to and seconds of contemplation. In fact, backed by a gorgeous lighting rig that bathes the musicians in a golden glow (a very suitable accompaniment to their smile-through-the-tears track ‘Golden Days’) and a kaleidoscopic colour wash, the individual talent of each band member helps to tug on your heartstrings.
Their songs haven’t yet reached singalong status. They’re not anthemic, and that’s not a criticism; only ‘No Woman’ – clearly a personal favourite for many an audience member and the penultimate song of the set – is enough to truly get everyone exercising their otherwise-mute vocal chords. The repeated refrain, “I left drinking on the city train / To spend some time on the road,” speaks of wandering loneliness, but as soon as the words have left Ehrlich’s lips, they’ve already been thrown out into the atmosphere and adopted by a collected consciousness – people brought together by a love and mutual understanding of the songs in Whitney’s majestic discography. And what could be less lonely than that?
See the video for ‘Used To Be Lonely’ here: