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Michael Bialas

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Show and Tell: The Head and the Heart, Priscilla Ahn Live in Denver

Posted: 10/18/2011 11:38 am

With seemingly little in common besides their indie performance aura and West Coast vibe, The Head And The Heart and Priscilla Ahn both know how to wow a crowd.

While the methods to their madness are as different as Seattle rain and L.A. sunshine, and the songs don't remain the same, the two acts promoting recent albums delivered with hour-long performances on back-to-back nights in Denver last week.

Still, what a difference a day makes.

The Head And The Heart, a six-piece, Seattle-based unit, took folk rock to a spiritual level October 10 at the sold-out Gothic Theatre (capacity: 999). With powerful and inspirational tunes, they kept the frenzied followers on their feet (as if they had any choice in the cramped quarters) throughout the night.

Less than 24 hours later, Los Angeles-based pop-folk singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn bedeviled a tiny gathering of 50 with a sweet, intimate, primarily solo engagement at the cozy Walnut Room (capacity: 200), where women outnumbered the men 4-to-1.

While The Head And The Heart got the blood boiling and the adrenaline flowing, pretty Priscilla brought such beauty, style and grace to her performance -- not to mention one of the most precious and pure pop voices since Sarah McLachlan -- that it's nearly impossible to favor one over the other.

The Head And The Heart really do know how to throw a crowded house party, though, led by the Mutt-and-Jeff duo of Jonathan Russell (the lanky, clean-shaven one) and Josiah Johnson (the shorter, bearded one). With the crowd's warmth for them gaining steam, both shed denim jackets to reveal retro tank tops only a few songs into their set.

Fiery anthems like "Rivers and Roads," "Sounds Like Hallelujah" and "Down in the Valley" (all included on their self-titled debut album, re-released by Sub Pop in 2011) turned up the heat. They all offer catchy hooks, powerful choruses and rollicking climaxes that appeal to the masses, who can't help but sing along.

Charity Rose Thielen singIf Mumford & Sons lived in America and added a daughter, that would be The Head And The Heart, who break up the man show with Charity Rose Thielen (left). The quirky violinist rounded out the blended vocals and captured the hearts of many lustful hipsters (and a few dirty old men).

One of the opening acts at the distinguished Telluride Bluegrass Festival this year, The Head And The Heart bring such an infectious playfulness to the proceedings that others want to join in. Of course, the self-assured Johnson and Russell have a lot to do with it, their acoustic guitars belying a smells-like-teen spirit.

That let's-put-on-a-show camaraderie played out when Johnson, Russell and their mean tambourines joined opening act The Devil Whale long before the venue was filled. A sturdy Salt Lake City outfit (check out 2011's Teeth for "Magic Numbers," "So-Called War" and "The Road to Hell"), The Devil Whale offer tight, tuneful harmonies to go with Brinton Jones' lyrical passages and Jamie Timm's exhilarating electric guitar runs.

The Devil Whale, celebrating the end of a 3 1/2-week run on this tour, returned the party favor later with the show's other supporting act, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, for the night's defining all-for-one moment.

The Head And The Heart with Thao
The Head And The Heart's Josiah Johnson (left), Jonathan Russell (center)
and Charity Rose Thielen (right) sing with Thao Nguyen and members
of her band The Get Down Stay Down and The Devil Whale in Denver.


With taut vocals by Russell and Johnson, Kenny Hensley's flashy piano and a driving beat from drummer Tyler Williams and bassist Chris Zasche, The Head And The Heart's "Lost in My Mind" was a Sunday-go-to-meeting experience that had the congregation reaching a Gleeful fever pitch. An exuberant Thielen nearly fell down afterward while high-fiving Jake Fish, The Devil Whale's bass player who towered over her.


The nostalgic "Winter Song" ("I will miss the days we had") brought back a touch of tranquility, though Thielen's solo turn ("I'll be back again to stay") attracted more whoops and yelps than warranted for such a pensive piece. Johnson ambled over from his side of the stage to offer a few encouraging words, a smile and a handclasp that appeared to settle the heart of The Head And The Heart.

A soulful contribution to "Rivers and Roads" by the cherubic Thielen was a highlight of the set closer and she also received a fist pump from Russell after their duet on the first encore, the glorious "Chasing a Ghost."

Sticking mostly to the music during the set, a barefoot Russell did pause before closing with the surging "Down in the Valley" to give a brief shout-out to a couple from Durango who traveled seven hours to Denver.

That type of fan loyalty proves there's hope that The Head And The Heart, just booked for an October 28 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, will reach even a broader audience. With such smart, thoughtful and uplifting messages, they might represent America's best chance to boost the next roots generation.

Just cause for similar optimism can be found with Ahn, though on a smaller scale. She has the musical capacity and alluring ability to refresh a stale format still filled with underwhelming, overrated McLachlan wannabes.

The first time I heard Ahn's gorgeous voice was on Grey's Anatomy in 2008, when "Dream" played during a Season 4 episode titled "Freedom." Less than a month later, Ahn made it OK to feel the infinite sadness with the release of A Good Day.

That same beautiful "Dream" opened her return engagement to the Walnut Room, where the charmingly chatty Ahn later shared personal details -- often punctuated by girlie giggles -- about the genesis of other songs she wrote, including "Wallflower."

At age 19, shortly after moving to Los Angeles from Bernville, Pennsylvania, where she spent much of her childhood, Ahn was invited to a Hollywood house party.

Priscilla Ahn smile"Back then, I used to wear cargo pants and baggy shorts and I looked like a lesbian," said Ahn (left). "It was totally fine, I mean, I thought it was cool back then. And everybody at these parties was dressed to the nines. So, naturally, nobody ever talked to me. Which was fine, 'cause I didn't really want to talk to them either.

"So I would just end up drunk by myself in the corner watching everybody and sort of hoping that maybe there was one other person at this lame party who felt the same way I did about it. ... I never met that person at the lame party. So I wrote this song about being a wallflower and finding my wallflower friend."

Between then and now, things changed dramatically for Ahn. Her superb sophomore release this May, When You Grow Up (Blue Note Records), is a byproduct of an improved quality of life. Though sad will never disappear from her vocabulary, Ahn's latest record -- produced by Ethan Johns (son of English recording legend Glyn Johns) -- offers bits of Jon Brion-like mirth and merriment.

"I've written some happy songs but I can't ever play them in public because everybody will just start throwing up," Ahn said, laughing, while introducing "Oo La La," a comparatively cheery number she co-wrote with friend Eleni Mandell. "So I'm working on that."

Married to actor Michael Weston since 2010, a content and happier Ahn admitted songwriting became more difficult for this new album. Before, she would lock herself in a room, "drink a bottle of wine and get really sad" to complete the task.

Now? "I lock myself in a room and I sort of sit there and just like ... " (big sigh).

So Ahn got some of her other musician friends involved in the process, including Inara George (one-third of The Living Sisters side project with Mandell and Becky Stark) on "City Lights (Pretty Lights)", Jake Blanton (the perky title track), Sia Furler ("I Will Get Over You") and Charlie Wadhams, whose vocal contribution turns "I Don't Have Time To Be In Love" into a duet.

Priscilla Ahn ukuleleWhile a couple of those numbers are romantic and endearing, Ahn left it to Wadhams to come up with the idea for one of the loveliest songs about heartache after he experienced a "really bad breakup," she revealed. The pair are currently writing more duets that they hope to release on Valentine's Day. Suggested title: Gloom and Doomsday.

Ahn's stage persona is anything but dreary, though. Proud of her heritage (her mother is Korean), the beauty possesses the exotic looks of Jessica Alba and a casual girl-next-door demeanor.

With an acoustic guitar as her primary instrument on record and onstage, Ahn enhanced her relaxing live act with her own prerecorded backing vocals. She showed her versatility by adding harmonica ("I Don't Think So"), ukulele ("Find My Way Back Home") and even kazoo ("The Boob Song," her whimsical retelling of a true story about a disappointing discovery).

Ahn also was accompanied on occasion by L.A.-born guitarist/vocalist Wendy Wang (whose own solo project is called The Sweet Hurt) and keyboardist Gary Fukushima, a Seattle native with a jazz background. "We also happen to be Asian," Ahn jokingly noted. "That was totally intentional. But it's great. We all take our shoes off when we enter rooms."

OK, maybe her one-liners need a little work, but a songwriter as earnest and engaging as Ahn ("Torch Song" and "Cry Baby" are other gems) can be excused for one misstep.

Ahn may still be walking under the national radar (May appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Dancing with the Stars notwithstanding) and a date at the Gothic isn't on her immediate calendar. But there has to be a way to make room at the top for The Head And The Heart And The Voice of an Angel.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more photos of The Head And The Heart at the Gothic Theatre and Priscilla Ahn at the Walnut Room.

 

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