Judah & the Lion, The Riviera Theatre, Chicago

in Live

“We never wanted to be a cool band” lead singer, Judah Aker, explained far past the point of offering this as new information to the audience.

After witnessing the variety of footwork (a leprechaun jig, a tribal rain dance, and everything in-between) and stage outfits (calling up comparisons to lumberjacks, Duck Dynasty, and 90’s workout videos), that much was clear to the audience.  

Much about this Nashville band’s message, music, and manners suggests that such bravatas as trying to “be a cool band” would be getting in the way of their one goal as a group of musicians; to instill that “we are all family” as announced from stage by Aker multiple times in both direct and indirect terms throughout the show.

The sentiment of “we are all family” includes the opening bands of the evening first of which was Tall Heights, a Boston electrofolk duo comprised of Tim Harrington (guitar, vocals) and Paul Wright (cello, vocals) with touring member Paul Dumas (percussion, vocals).  Amidst the seamlessly blended vocals, ripping guitar-strapped cello solos, and sardonic back-and-forths with the audience, the band echoed Judah and the Lions’ family sentiment noting how a brotherhood has formed between the three bands touring together.

This brotherhood extended to indie-rock Colony House, the second opener of the night.  Brothers Caleb (guitar, lead vocals) and Will Chapman (percussion) joined by Scott Mills (guitar, vocals) and Parke Cottrell (bass, keys, vocals) step out with outfits and footwork calling to mind the innocence of ‘Happy Days’ and the clean-cut riff raff of the British Invasion.  Placing drummer Will Chapman stage right in plain sight invited the audience to enjoy his energetic style and nonchalant tossing of splintered drumsticks over his shoulder into the darkness off-stage.  Caleb Chapman’s boyish vocals, sometimes being lost in the instruments, blended beautifully with bandmates at softer moments of the set one of which featured ‘Moving Forward’.  All band members filed off stage leaving Caleb Chapman alone with his guitar until the end when they rejoined him in voice and sentiment.

All opening acts finished, the Judah and the Lions’ set started with a cascade of purple-lit synth tones while the pit inched closer to the stage and the balcony rose to its feet. Even the gaudy, once-decadent walls of the old Riviera Theater seemed to grin and vibrate perhaps knocking a paint chip loose here and there –  a small sacrifice for answering this new higher calling for its walls.

The somber, expectant mood abruptly shattered as the band members erupted on the stage to a cover of ‘Booty Work’ by T-Pain, dance moves, as you can imagine, to accompany.   While the crowd settled down, the band members took their posts.  The three frontmen, Brian Macdonald (mandolin, vocals), Judah Akers (guitar, lead vocals), and Nate Zuercher (banjo, vocals), lining up with their touring bandmates (Dylan Oglesby – guitar, backing vocals, accordion; Troy Bruner – drums; Daniel Weatherby – keys, synth bass) behind on screen-backdropped platforms.

Launching into their setlist, dramatic pauses in light and sound made the show ebb and flow with pointed contrast living up to the band’s intention to make their live shows priority, “Our shows are all about the experience we share with our fans. We know that people work everyday jobs or go to school, and they’re dealing with life, and yet they’re still choosing to spend the night with us. We don’t take that lightly. We give them an experience. We throw an absolute rage. And all the songs were made with that in mind. They’re fun, carefree, and youthful, and we live our lives that way, too,” (Judah Akers, www.judahandthelion.com/about).  Opening band members were invited periodically to join in sometimes solemnly crowding around mics, sometimes donning over-sized sunglasses and romping around stage like ten best friends in a bounce-house with instruments narrated visually by lights.  Familiar covers reminiscently speckled the show and curtain call from The Killers (‘Mr. Brightside’), Tom Petty (‘Brown-Eyed Girl’) — a diversion from the setlist, Bill Withers (‘Lean on Me’), and a raucous, metal version of ‘Happy Birthday’ directed towards Macdonald’s dad up in the box seats.  The audience constantly knocked off balance, was unsure of what to expect next.

Unexpected but not disappointed.  The audience experienced a “2 Minute Dance Party” as announced by Akers.  All three bands of the night swarmed the stage while both stage and crowd raged.  All man-buns were let down for this moment which was punctuated by Akers launching into the pit for a quick surf, continuing to sing into his clutched mic.  Riviera security gingerly helped him back onstage.  Once back there, Akers had a somber moment with the audience with a message of self-acceptance and togetherness while the band played lowly.

In keeping with the theme of “we are all family” for their first curtain call, all three bands were once again invited to the stage where they sang ‘Lean on Me’ gathered around mics, arms around shoulders, and accompanied only by mandolin, banjo, and guitar.   The audience mirrored them in song, stance, and message.  Ending with Water, Judah and the Lion exited the stage with Akers wishing “this night would never end”.

Filing out of the Riv, I considered how many spectators wondered the same as me:  what is this band’s particular ability to rally people?  They make you want to feed the homeless, hold the door open for someone, smile at a stranger, solve world hunger, write music, join their cause.  I suspect it is their authenticity in disregarding the conventional trappings of the professional band lifestyle and motivations.  I also suspect that if they presented some call to action, their fans wouldn’t disappoint.  Tell us Judah and the Lion, how do we join your cause?

Review by: Rose Dunphy

We rate:
5.0 rating

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