MUSICFEST @ MAGNESS ARENA | 5/25/13 The Head and the Heart took the Magness stage at around 10 p.m., after the outdoor acts played earlier in the day and the three other groups played the main stage off and on for about three hours. At that point, folks seemed far from electrified. By the end of opening tune "Coeur D'Alene," however, the crowd was definitely more engaged. And that's largely thanks to the band's live dynamic, which was joyous, energetic and participatory. The players made the space their own, crossing the stage constantly, encouraging audience members to sing along, which made the lofty arena space feel far more intimate.
That intimate mood was a constant throughout the sextet's set. The band's unique song structures and singular sound were constantly compelling, from the lush, dense piano intro of "Ghosts" to the eerie strains of "Down in the Valley." Though the instrumental effects played a big part, the constant standout of the set was the act's complex and intricate harmonies.
The indie folkers from Seattle were the undeniable highlight of the University of Denver's 2013 MusicFest. That was no easy feat, considering the fact that the rest of showcase otherwise felt uneven and arbitrary. The other acts on the bill didn't seem to engage the audience as well as the Head and the Heart.
To be fair, that's because the place wasn't even half full. The crowd filled a fraction of the venue's stadium seating, and there were vast stretches of empty space on the floor in front of the stage. Add to that the arena's echo-laden acoustics and its layout designed for hockey games, and the Head and the Heart's performance was all the more impressive.
All things considered, the first three acts had high points of their own. Los Angeles crooner Mayer Hawthorne offered a nostalgic blend of old Motown, vintage disco and '80s synth rock in his set. Backed by a quartet of players all decked in striped boating shirts, Hawthorne emerged in a formal jacket and Capri pants.
Some of the band's tributes to the smooth-rock sounds of yesteryear were a bit overly simplistic, but Hawthorne paid his homages with energy and enthusiasm. His high falsetto summoned hints of Marvin Gaye, while the structure of tunes like "The Walk" recalled old Smokey Robinson. The band, meanwhile, didn't opt for subtlety in its tribute to Hall & Oates -- a straight-ahead cover of "You Make My Dreams Come True."
The smooth feel of Hawthorne's set was a stark contrast to that of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. The San Francisco ensemble, led by Thao Nguyen, struck a much more experimental and stark tone in its performance, a set that included Nguyen playing a huge F-top guitar, a mandolin, a banjo and a slide guitar set up horizontally on a stand.
It was a set that would have been more compelling in a small rock club or a more formal theater. Even though Nguyen declared at one point, "Arena rock -- this is it, you guys," her flair for abstract songwriting didn't quite come through in the setting. The space felt too lofty; the crowd seemed too distracted. The subtle hints to Vietnamese pop music on songs like "Holy Roller" seemed lost on the audience composed mostly of college students.
PLACES, the local act that opened the show, felt much more fitting considering the crowd. The ensemble comprising lead singer/guitarist Tyler Glasgow, dual drummers Checkers and Drew Barker, electric guitarist Brian Martin and twelve-string player Jon Hatridge certainly boasted a big enough sound to fill the place as the audience was still streaming in from outside. The band played tracks from previous releases like "Where We Are Right Now," as well as new tunes from an as-of-yet-unreleased record.
Personal Bias: After seeing Bob Dylan play in the same place, I'm not the biggest fan of Magness as a music venue.
Random Note: I ran into a whole host of local musicians walking around Magness. Players from the Epilogues, Petals of Spain and the Surplus Cheaper Hands Collective were all there.
By the Way: From The Head and the Heart lead singer Jon Russell: "We've kind of been away a while. This is the first show we've played in four months, and we chose to do it here." That lull came because the band is working on a new record, Russell added.
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