The Lumineers burst onto the scene with a huge breakthrough hit Ho, Hey, and quickly found themselves pigeonholed alongside the likes of Mumford & Sons. Whereas that band had shot religious imagery right through their lyrics and clung to a “every song builds to a crescendo” formula, The Lumineers were more interested in girls and relationships and a stripped down musical vibe. All that was four years ago, now in 2016 for their second album, Cleopatra, they’ve teamed up with Simone Felice as producer and steered in a direction that’s slightly darker whilst retaining a distinct upbeat undercurrent. And it clearly has wide-appeal, this sold out appearance was the first of two nights at the legendary Hammersmith Apollo. You can tell a lot about a band by it’s choice of play-on and play-out tracks, and The Lumineers took the stage running to Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, giving them a burst of energy from the get go. The band – lead singer and front man Wesley Schultz, Jeremiah Fraites on drums and other percussion and pianos and cellist Neyla Pekarek – were supported by additional musicians on piano, guitar/mandolin and, on bass Byron Isaacs (probably best known as part of the late Levon Helm’s Band). The opener Sleep On The Floor, also the first track on the new album, is a slow builder which draws all the band in before subverting expectations by fading quietly out again. Whilst Wesley Schultz sings passionately of fleeing to the next state with his girl there’s time to take in the uncluttered stage arrangement – most of the musicians up on risers with five tubular sculptures, like stacks of organ pipes, at the stage back and full rock show lighting. And if the opener was well received, then Ophelia produced an ecstatic reaction with it’s stomping first few bars and super catchy syncopated chorus: “O-o-phelia, you’ve been on my mind girl like a drug” has the crowd singing along in ecstasy.
The Lumineers are crowdpleasers, and they hold that crowd in their hands for most of the time. So, four songs in, when Wesley Schultz offers the crowd a deal – film and photograph the next song then put all the phone cameras away – it actually works. The reward is the now ubiquitous Ho, Hey which stamps and rocks at last song of the encore levels of enthusiasm – Schultz and Isaacs competing over who can produce the most foot stomps whilst still playing. It is impossible not to be swept along by the passionate delivery, augmented by the banks of lights flashing over the crowd, punctuating every “ho” and every “hey”. At other points in the gig people get pulled from the crowd to help out on a big chime bar solo, Schultz takes a short and rather overwhelmed audience walk, Darlene is sung fully acoustic from the stage front and magically brings silence to the excitable and chatty audience. There are even confetti cannons in Big Parade.
Neyla Pekarek really comes into her own on Classy Girls, delivering a vigorous opening to this much sped up version of a light hearted song about meeting nice girls in bars. And mostly that’s what comes across from the Lumineers – they’re nice guys and for all that there’s a great attraction to the edgy and the dangerous within music sometimes it’s good to know that the nice guys get to win. Even in their darker songs – like Long Way from Home – the darkness comes from revisiting painful emotions, in this case as Schultz explains, alone on the stage, it’s the death of his father from the same rare cancer that also killed his grandmother. With additional verses that didn’t make it onto the album the subject matter is much clearer, and unsurprisingly his father’s death informs other songs as well – In the light meditates on how it must have been for his father knowing that he had a painful death coming his way, and Gun Song captures the shock of finding his father’s gun – the gun he never knew he had – some nine years after his death. It’s the revelation that comes, sooner or later, that we don’t really know everything about our parents and as close as they are there are some depths and thoughts and actions of theirs that are forever unfathomable.
Submarines and Charlie Boy are also family tales – uncles who went to war, one spotting a Japanese submarine whilst on coast watch – only to be disbelieved – and the other inspired by JFK to give back to his country only to fall in Vietnam. There are also cinemagraphic tales like Cleopatra which tells of mismatched and mistimed love, in a way that is quite reminiscent of Josh Ritter. Quite wonderfully, mid-set, there’s a nod to the new Nobel laureate for literature with a frantic take on Subterranean Homesick Blues which is true to Dylan’s slash and cut original lyrics and still sounds true to The Lumineers as a band. The other notable call out of the night is on the wonderfully bombastic Big Parade with a subtle lyric change to highlight that “Here she comes, the candidate / Blue eyed girl, United States / Vote for her, the candidate”. And if only Lumineers fans were to vote in the upcoming election then Clinton would be in on a landslide.
What the Lumineers proved beyond a doubt is that they are far more than a ho-heying one trick pony. In the light has an early seventies wasted rock stars vibe to it – like something from a tired Beatle – it’s the piano lines and the cello drone that really effect this, which is a feeling extended into My Eyes with its languid groove giving it something of that drugs blasted seventies rock feel, balanced on the subtle echo of a jazz bodied guitar and that finishes theatrically with Jeremiah Fraites playing piano alone under a spotlight for an extended coda once the rest of the band have drifted off stage. Finally leaving after a three song encore and ninety minutes on stage The Lumineers flash up another influence – they exit to Atlantic City, one of Springsteen’s bleakest off Nebraska. Do they dwell in the pop end of Americana ? Well, maybe a little, but on stage they just keep giving and that’s what makes them, in the final accounting, irresistible.
Sleep on the floor
Flowers in your hair
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Slow it down
In the light
Long Way From Home