Last night, when Tim Bruns and Bethany Kelly left the stage and sprinted to the Bluebird's upstairs balcony to sing a couple songs, you could tell this was a special night for Churchill. "We didn't think anyone would show up if we played a second night," Bruns said a bit earlier between the first few songs. Those worries were clearly unfounded. This crowd treated the group like family as fans knew and sang along with most of the songs and the band responded in kind.
Churchill set the mood early with "Miles" from the band's excellent 2011 release, Happy/Sad: "Darling/I'll be the man who's always on your side," sang Bruns over a steady, repetitive acoustic chord progression, backed by mandolin and an unobtrusive rhythm section. Throughout the night, Churchill performed a number of tunes from Happy/Sad (which incidentally is the same title of a Tim Buckley album, whose 1970s folk-rock may also have influenced them), which more or less served as a sort of template for the evening: shamelessly heartfelt lyrics, delivered in a breezy, alt-country fashion.
A couple more songs in and the singalongs became more intensified during songs like -- "Ark in a Flood" and "Betrayed." Keyboardist/vocalist Bethany Kelly also took more turns in the spotlight, at times harmonizing with Bruns while at others showcasing her own, almost bluegrass-inflected vocals. Somewhere Rickie Lee Jones must've been smiling.
It's not hard to see why Churchill has gained such steam. Songs like "Cold Enough" and the late-set piece "I Still Remember" sound like instantly-recognizable hits that you've you heard somewhere but can't quite remember. Their teeth, however, are sharper than most radio singles, with vocals that are less embarrassing than some more high profile band's empty state-of-the-world pronouncements or other acts' lyrics-cum-teenage diary entries. Much has been made of the Christian undercurrents in Churchill's lyrics, but if all such pious-inflected output sounded like this, DC Talk would've been taken seriously long ago.
When Bruns and Kelly ran upstairs to play a couple songs (including the excellent acoustic number "The Only One"), the sound and light guys adjusted to accommodate them. The stage itself shifted from the normally subdued red-and-blue hues to something akin to a prison yard full of klieg lights, all but assaulting anyone who dared look towards the front of the house.
A few minutes later, Bruns and Kelly parted ways temporarily, with the latter running outside through to a side door leading back to the stage, while the former kept the crowd's energy going with a mass singalong of perhaps the heaviest song of the night, "Made a List." After that climax, the band let the crowd down slowly, playing "Leave," a standout tune that admirably showcased Kelly's ability as a lead singer. It had been a long weekend for Churchill, having played back-to-back shows to near-capacity crowds. Yet if Kelly's late rally was any indication, the band could have continued playing much, much later than it did.
Personal Bias: What's not to love about Churchill? They're about the nicest folks you could hope to meet. They're Denverites. And their music lives up to the hype.
Random Note: Seattle trio Barcelona opened for Churchill. Lead singer Brian Fennell had everyone in stitches by answering ridiculous questions from the audience.
By the Way: The stage, backdropped with silver tinsel, offered little room for the band itself to cut loose, but they did what they could, occasionally jumping but stopping well short of amp-destroying antics.
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