Last night, Denver hosted Pinegrove — the New Jersey-bred indie-rock band whose name you should get used to hearing, as its album Cardinal will no doubt land on many year-end best lists.
Yes, it's only July. But Pinegrove offers an American rock that strikes deep and sticks with listeners: a layered tapestry of Green Day vocal urgency, alt-country tempo and twang, and writer George Saunders's big-hearted humanism. Early on in last night's set, frontman Evan Stephens Hall sang, “I should tell my friends when I love them” – a line from “Old Friends,” which, in the hands of a less capable songwriter or vocalist, might come off as saccharine. Delivered by Hall at just the right moment, however, it came off as a bare and hard-won pledge.
These days, Pinegrove may be many fans' and critics' new favorite band. Yet not so long ago, Hall was something else: a counselor at Geneva Glen summer camp in Indian Hills, Colorado. A longtime camper at the co-ed sleepaway camp, Hall returned as a counselor, and though it's been a few years since his tenure, the crowd at Larimer Lounge was packed with faces from that context. Watching Hall — whom some fans were surprised to learn is 27 years old — smile at the audience, seeming genuinely moved, it wasn't hard to picture him leading kids through team-building ropes courses, trust falls and campfire games.
Throughout the performance, Hall embodied the sort of radical empathy that Pinegrove's songs convey – an expansive vulnerability that looks outward rather than dwelling on one's own hurt. It's this distinction, perhaps, that separates Pinegrove's music from emo, a genre with which it is sometimes linked, but one that Hall says he doesn't feel very connected to.
While the show did feature some hallmarks of emo – fervent fans, many of them teenagers, singing loudly along to the lyrics, that's really only evidence of Pinegrove's commitment to inclusion and access. Between songs, Hall answered questions shouted out from the crowd and gave props to his bandmates. Pinegrove is currently touring as a six-piece, with four of its members originally hailing from Montclair, New Jersey, and also including Nandi Rose Plunkett, who attended Kenyon College with Hall. The connections among the musicians extended to the opening acts: Sports, which put on a winning, high-energy pop-punk set, is a band of recent Kenyon grads. In addition, electronic-leaning act Half Waif comprises three members of Pinegrove: Plunkett, drummer Zack Levine (friends with Hall since childhood) and Adan Carlo.
The musicianship and affection among these artists reinforce the threads running through Pinegrove. Though driven by Hall's songwriting, Plunkett's harmonies, Levine's drumming, and Josh Marre's bits of slide guitar make the group's vision live on stage. Pinegrove played most of Cardinal, other fan favorites from the Everything So Far compilation ("Angelina") and 2012's Meridian (“The Metronome"), and even a new song. Hall's voice was as clear, conversational and, by turns, raw as it sounds on record, and the live setting allowed room for him to adjust his register and allow the audience to enter a song.
Pinegrove may practice vulnerability, but it's not self-serious. Near the end of the set, Hall appeased requests and launched suddenly into a camp song, directing different sections of the audience, many of whom knew the words and clapped along. Continuing in this spirit of community through communication, Hall spoke briefly about committing himself to practicing kindness. Though addressing issues of police brutality and mentioning that Sports was collecting cash that would be given directly to Black Lives Matter, Hall distilled the message to a simple goal, accomplishable in that moment, in that room, saying, “Let's localize this. Be contextually sensitive.” Then Pinegrove ended the set the same way it ended the album – with “New Friends.”