Indie folk-pop band The Head and the Heart is in a unique career stage: Too popular for the likes of Canton Hall and House of Blues, but not popular enough for some of the city’s larger venues. The Seattle sextet made camp at Toyota Music Factory on Friday for the Dallas stop of their Living Mirage Tour, their biggest yet, a country-crossing effort to promote their fourth and most critically acclaimed album yet, Living Mirage.
The band's upped the set design, the lights and the other bells and whistles that come with the territory of embarking on larger tours. Despite the enhanced production value, the band’s biggest asset is still, well, its heart. True to form, the band overcame a rocky start, ultimately bringing down the house with an impressive, often touching performance that deserved a venue befitting their engaging style.
After a solid opening show from Hippo Campus, The Head and the Heart took the stage in front of a few thousand fans milling about the cavernous Factory. Lead singer Jonathan Russell, boasting a red jacket, a fedora and a soulful voice capable of traversing pop, folk and most genres in between, appeared to be doing his best Bob Dylan impression — at least the get-up and the mumbling — for the show’s opener, the title track from their latest release. Russell’s lyrics became clearer with the show’s second song, Living Mirage’s first single, “Missed Connection.”
Throughout the night, Russell’s chill, near casual energy was buoyed by boisterous efforts from drummer Tyler Williams and backup vocalist Matt Gervais. The latter joined the band in 2016 when frontman Josiah Johnson took an extended hiatus to start a recovery program for his drug and alcohol addiction. The hiatus became permanent, as did Gervais, who alternated between backup vocals, guitar and serving as the band’s resident hype man, jumping up, down and across the stage to jam alongside his bandmates.
Gervais is married to violinist and singer Charity Rose Thielen, who more than once stole the show, wowing the crowd with her violin and her vocals. Rose Thielen has been more prominently featured than in the past on the band's new album, and this choice suited their Music Factory performance well. Her vocal prowess on the song “Brenda” was one of the high points of the show, and her vocal contributions were always met with well-deserved rapturous applause.
Johnson’s departure ushered in a new era for the band. Living Mirage is more pop and more synthy, a sonic change that may betray the use of writers outside the band, which, like the set design, is a first for them. But for all these changes, The Head and the Heart has retained the folksy, hirsute, down-to-earth lyricism and melodic heft that yearns to be felt and sung with everything you have.
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There were many times during the show that you could practically feel the band longing for the closeness provided by a smaller venue. Gervais turned his frenetic, loose energy toward the audience, literally reaching out and craning a microphone out and down to those in the pit so they could sing along to one of the band’s most popular tunes.
Rose Thielen, clearly the audience’s rightful favorite, showed the fans she loves them, too, when she invited a couple of pit dwellers to the stage because one of them had been proudly hoisting a vinyl of the band’s self-titled debut above his head all night. When the couple took control of a shaker, a tambourine and a mic, Russell joked that “they know this song better than I do.” For his part, Russell praised Deep Ellum (“the cool little neighborhood you guys have down here”) and joked about the scooters his band rode around said neighborhood until the early hours of Friday morning.
These efforts to engage and connect were not lost on the audience. After an anticlimactic performance of their debut album’s “Down in the Valley,” the band walked offstage to uproars of applause and hollers demanding an encore. Russell obliged, stepping back solo for a heartrending, piano-driven performance of “Life’s One Big Mystery,” a track that does not appear on any of the band’s records. His bandmates then joined him for a grand finale that included the one song everyone anxiously awaited all night: “Rivers and Roads,” a fan favorite from their debut.
The typically melancholy song takes on a new life when performed live. It may be the sheer joy it brings both fans and artists, or the fact that it seems engineered for a moment just like this: a barn-burning outro befitting a night of folk splendor. But it also might be because the song epitomizes where the band was then and now. Just like the implacable tragedy of life and love that they so often sing about, the band’s final song showed that they, too, will never really change, that they are the same band you fell in love with. Things are just a bit bigger now.