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Review: The Head and the Heart kick off two nights at ACL Live

Peter Blackstock
The Head and the Heart played the first of two nights at ACL Live on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. [Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Near the end of a 90-minute set at ACL Live on Tuesday night, the Head and the Heart's Charity Rose Thielen remarked on how fortunate the band felt "to play music in such a musical city." Formed in Seattle a decade ago but with members drawn from both coasts, the band has played in Austin a lot over the years, yet surprisingly not often outside of festival-type environments.

This two-night stand at the city's marquee music hall — they're there again on Wednesday — follows two nights at Stubb's in 2016 as the only proper tour-stop visits they've made here in the past five years. You may have seen them plenty even so: They played the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2014 and 2017, South by Southwest in 2016, and Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic last year. They also taped "Austin City Limits" in 2017 in the same venue they're playing this week.

RELATED: Review of the Head and the Heart at ACL Fest 2017

Now with four albums to their name — including the new "Living Mirage," issued in May — the Head and the Heart faces increasingly tough choices when making up set lists. On Tuesday, they played 8 of 11 tracks from the new record, plus three each from the previous two and a somewhat surprising six from their 2011 self-titled debut. Several of those early songs connected most deeply with a crowd that's probably been with them from the start, for the most part; they sang along with joy and spirit on favorites such as "Lost In My Mind" and the show-closing "Rivers and Roads."

The past couple of times through, the band was still adjusting to a significant lineup change, with co-founder Josiah Johnson's departure shifting the spotlight more directly on frontman Jonathan Russell. The addition of multi-instrumentalist Matt Gervais (who's Thielen's husband) now feels fully internalized, and Thielen herself seems to have increasing prominence. Russell, a charismatic singer and lively stage performer, remains the primary focal point, but whenever Thielen got a lead vocal or a violin solo on Tuesday, the crowd made it clear they love what she brings to the band.

Behind those three on risers, pianist Kenny Hensley and the rhythm section of bassist Chris Zasche and drummer Tyler Williams consistently propelled material that's probably best classified as folk-rock, though the Head and the Heart's take on it is quite modern, influenced by indie inventiveness and 21st-century eclecticism. At their core, though, this band has always been about the songs, and that's continued to be the case with the "Living Mirage" material.

RELATED: Our 2017 interview with drummer Tyler Williams

Standouts from the new album included the title track, which opened the show not with a bang but rather an intriguing slow burn; "Glory of Music," performed solo acoustic by Russell to kick off a five-song encore; and "Up Against the Wall," which has no "Redneck Mother" rejoinder (sorry, Ray Wylie Hubbard) but rather featured a muscular three-guitar front for an instant-gratification power-pop melodic crunch.

The tour de force of "Down in the Valley," another first-album single, brought out the best in the band's use of dynamics, closing the main set with the dramatic flair of quieter acoustic moments that gave way to crashing anthemic passages. The audience was fully with them at that point, a packed standing-room floor carrying the choruses along with the band. The only real down side was the lighting; the stage show puts a big emphasis on moody colors over visual clarity, which may enhance the music but means the band members often get lost in the shady hues.

A fine choice to open the show was Twin Cities outfit Hippo Campus, a five-piece indie out fit that supplements the typical two-guitars-bass-drums rock core with floor-tom/horn player DeCarlo Jackson. Both Jake Luppen and Nathan Stocker play guitar and sing, though Luppen, at center stage, is clearly the better vocalist and more magnetic presence. Their 45-minute set was engaging from start to finish, suggesting they may well play this big room as a headliner someday.

The Head and the Heart set list:

1. Living Mirage

2. Missed Connection

3. Rhythm & Blues

4. Ghosts

5. All We Ever Knew

6. Another Story

7. Let's Be Still

8. Brenda

9. Lost in My Mind

10. Winter Song

11. Honeybee

12. I Found Out

13. Up Against the Wall

14. Down in the Valley


15. Glory of Music

16. Library Magic

17. See You Through My Eyes

18. Shake

19. Rivers and Roads