In an era in New York when nobody leaves their neighborhood anymore, that the Oh Hellos sold out Bowery Ballroom on a rainy Monday night is a major achievement by any standard. Has anyone ever sold out Bowery Ballroom on a Monday? Maybe Patti Smith, if New Year’s Eve happened to fall on that day of the week. Of course, a cynic might argue that the rich southern white kids who packed the house are the neighborhood now, more or less. As was clear from the ecstatic pitch of the applause as the band hit the stage, this was date night: lots of fresh-faced guys and girls, college juniors and seniors and recent grads, from the looks of them.
How do you report on a show if you spend most of it shooting pics of random gaggles of girls who’ve wordlessly handed you their phones, beaming and breathless? You try to get a grip on what brought those girls out – other than some mad dash for fifteen seconds on Instagram, maybe. What the Oh Hellos did to clinch this blog’s interest was to record an aptly creepy, enigmatic newgrass-tinged version of Camille Saint-Saens’ famous late 1800s classical piece, Danse Macabre, on their brand-new album Dear Wormwood. Interestingly, frontman/acoustic guitarist Tyler Heath apologized in advance for a setlist that would take a dip into darker material, although, he hastened to add, it would emerge triumphant shortly thereafter and pretty much stayed that way for the rest of the show.
Which is what got the girls swaying and singing along. A lot of times it seemed that everybody in the band was singing, even if they didn’t have a mic in front of them, adding considerable lushness and bulk to what was often already a towering, anthemic sound, the Polyphonic Spree with more of an ecumenical feel and some real tunes for once. Something you get growing up in the church in Flyover America, maybe? With two drummers – one on a full rock kit, the other on a more stripped-down but heavier standup kit – a total of three guitars, bass, viola, banjo and Heath’s sister Maggie adding her soaring, occasionally operatically-tinged vocals, the peaks and valleys were about even,, but the former made the latter seem hours away. A couple of cheerily circling numbers early on seemed to reference Vampire Weekend;; by the end, they’d risen closer to cloudy Coldplay bluster. The banjo and viola grounded much of the material in a folk vernacular, but one that was closer to the Punch Brothers than, say, Doc Watson. In between, symphonic swells and lustrous washes of sound sat side by side with both pensively fingerpicked folk-rock interludes and rousing, stomping, Celtic-flavored choruses.
One of Tyler’s lines that seemed to go over particularly well with the audience was, “We are not all alone in the dark with our demons.” Those who might need that kind of assurance can get it tonight, Nov 11 at Terminal 5 on an eclectic triplebill, starting at 8 PM with fiery female-fronted psychedelic/garage/honkytonk hellraisers Those Darlins, the Oh Hellos afterward and then fire-and-brimstone Americana dude Shakey Graves. Hopefully you have $27.50 advance tix if you’re going; it’s more at the door.