Usually when I go to a show I find myself avidly observing. I’m always watching for the tiny moments. Moments like when two members of a band glance at one another before they do something tricky with a song. Or bashful winces as tiny errors are made that no one else notices but the musician himself. Even a brief dance that could only happen if the “dancer” is genuinely lost in the song make each concert-going experience a little bit richer for me. I like the inside jokes and smiles. I like catching the non-singing band members as they sing along to the music. I try to capture these moments and lock them in my memory. I like to think that I might be the only person that caught maybe one or two of them. They are like secrets that I get to keep just for my own.
Wednesday night at the Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kansas was full of these moments, but I found myself so entranced with the music that I longed to stop observing and just close my eyes and take it all in. Sure, there were catchy tunes and a crowd full of people that seemed to genuinely love music, but I didn’t care about any of it. I just really wanted to find a wall, lean against it, stop looking at details and allow the night to wash over me.
Maybe this is due to the nearly supernatural sounds that began the night. As I walked into the Bottleneck, sounds of clean, ethereal vocals filled the air. The crowd stood huddled towards the stage with all eyes turned towards three girls. Individually they are each beautiful vocalists, but together they form Mountain Man, a contemporary folk band that consists primarily of a cappella songs only occasionally incorporating a single guitar. Instantly, I was reminded of the sirens seducing Clooney and the rest of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? gang. While pristine, there was still individuality to each member’s tone, but their voices blended so stunningly together I could barely tell one from the other. They modestly stood on stage with nothing but three microphones to call their own. Nearly all of the gear was designated for the headlining band however, they seemed completely at ease. No set list was to be found and between songs, jokes and enthusiasm was exchanged as they discussed what should be played next. While it can be assumed that most of the audience was there for Blind Pilot, I doubt many left without remembering the name Mountain Man.
This is not to imply something lesser occurred after Blind Pilot took the stage. Beginning as a humble two piece in 2007, front man Israel Nebeker and drummer Ryan Dobrowski have swelled to a lively six piece in only four years. To just look at them, they seem the kind of folksy, carefree but socially conscious band you would expect from Oregon. They even toured through the West Coast trading a tour bus for bicycles early on in their career. However, no Portlandia egos could be found as they opened with Star Wars references and closed giddily dancing as they signed autographs. Giggles, jokes and a lot of great music could be found in between.
As one song lingered in the air and another began, I was reminded of a lullaby or a fairy tale. Their songs are so natural, simplistic and yet controlled that they seem to have never been written; just to have always existed. While I understand that this could easily be misconstrued as an insult, it is not meant negatively. The challenge of making something that is, at once, uncomplicated and yet original can not be any easy task. The melodies felt like ones I’ve heard before, but nothing that I could recognize. Certain lyrics resonated so deeply that they felt like previous thoughts, but the phrasings were compiled in such a way that I could have never have uttered them.
I feel confident that I was not the only person enjoying the show. As the night came to a conclusion, members of the crowd actually booed to keep the band on the stage. This adoration was rewarded as the encore concluded with a simple, if odd request from the band: absolute silence. Unplugging all of their instruments, all of the non-percussionists (the drummers weren’t mobile) moved from the stage to the floor and played an acoustic version of “3 Rounds and a Sound”. As each audience member attempted silence, shuffles were heard, followed by stifled giggles and communal understanding that everyone was experiencing something special. The moment was nothing short of beautiful. I looked around and saw many sets of watery eyes, a heck of a lot of camera phones at work, and a ton of people trying to catch a glimpse. They seemed to be trying to find a secret moment to keep just for their own. I found a wall to lean up against, closed my eyes and let the moment wash over me.
By Erin Tuttle
Photos By Rebecca Armstrong