Outside of its stint at KTCL's Not So Silent Night back in December, Churchill has kept a rather low profile locally since its pair of headlining shows at the Bluebird back in September. That was right after the band had been picked up by A&M/Octone. Since then, the group has played Jimmy Kimmel Live, scored a Billboard chart hit with "Change," and embarked on two solid months of touring. Needless to say, the band has been stupid busy.
Last night, Churchill played a mix of established crowd pleasers interspersed with some new material, augmented with a cover Gnarls Barkley's 2006 mega-ultra-world-dominating hit, "Crazy." The band kicked off its set with "Ark in a Flood," and the group executed it every bit as well as they had on Kimmel, with frontman Tim Bruns and keyboardist Bethany Kelly doing their best to get the crowd clapping and singing along. Not that they needed to try very hard; Churchill, being the biggest Denver-band-that's-not-the Lumineers, has a ravenous local following that would probably perform synchronized knife fighting if Bruns had asked.
The rest of the set followed the same format: A new song, "War Within," was followed by "I Still Remember" (from last year's Change EP). Mandolinist Michael Morter was a constant presence throughout these and other mid-set songs. He's more of a strummer than a picker, and is heard more than any other instrumentalist in the band, adding to a vague, omnipresent bluegrass vibe that marks much of Churchill's output.
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As last night's performance attests, Churchill is right for its time. The folksy, front porch-picking thing was hardly on anyone's radar five years ago when the band started. Now, with Mumford & Sons on damn near every radio station from here to Antarctica, the genre's mass appeal is undeniable.
It helps that the band is tight as hell right now, too. Churchill's road-dogging has served them well. Last night, the outfit was flawless, with Bruns and Kelly, two singers with limited range but more than enough heart to compensate, apparently enjoying the familiar crowd. Bruns' "woah-ah-oh's" were a constant, as was the subtle, nuanced vibe of bassist Tyler Rima and drummer Joe Richmond. Everyone on stage appeared as though they were performing effortlessly -- a good quality to have when you're playing laid-back alt-country pop tunes every night of the week.
Throughout the show, including the later additions "We Used to Be Happy" and the namesake song from Churchill's Change EP, Bruns and Kelly waxed nostalgic between songs. They reminisced about playing the Meadowlark and the hi-dive. Bruns said he hoped so much snow would fall that they would get stuck in town and not have to play South by Southwest.
Springfield, Missouri's Ha Ha Tonka and Denver trio the Autumn Film opened the evening. Both bands have received some high profile airplay -- Ha Ha Tonka's "Jesusita" is being featured in MTV show Catfish, and the Autumn Film has a song on the CW show One Tree Hill. That's where the similarities end, though. The Autumn Film, led by Tifah Phillips, is quiet and intense bedroom music, not at all conducive to the cavern that is the Ogden Theatre, but well-executed, nonetheless. This is powerful music, reminiscent of all the best qualities of '90s alt-pop. Ha Ha Tonka, meanwhile, is another mandolin-heavy group whose sound -- a series of diary-esque rambles -- puts them clearly on the same wavelength as Churchill.
Personal Bias: Maybe the Ogden's size makes it harder for bands to connect with audiences, but last night's performance felt far less personal than Churchill's Bluebird gig last September.
Random Note: Keyboardist/singer Bethany Kelly brought out tom drums to bang on during the middle of the set while singing -- which Ellie Goulding did at the same venue last month. Is this a thing now?
By the Way: There's something admirable about the shamelessness of rock mandolinists. They play perhaps the least masculine instruments on the planet, and, even when plugged into amps, they still have a fey quality. Both Churchill and opening act Ha Ha Tonka showcased bandmembers rocking mando's last night.
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