Last Tuesday, I drove the hour and a half to Oklahoma City to see Ruston Kelly, The Lone Bellow, and Marcus Foster perform at a venue called the Conservatory (a misnomer if there ever was one). Here is the review.
I’d listened to a few of Kelly’s songs the morning before the concert. Though I liked them, I didn’t find any of them to be truly remarkable. I figured his performance would likely be the same.
How lovely it is to be surprised.
Kelly took to the small, cramped stage, a few shades past sober, jacket open, with a blue, red-rimmed hat carefully placed atop his head, tilted just slightly to the right. A few practice strums, a slight tweaking of the D string knob, and off he went. No introduction no addressing the crowd, just the opening chords to his first song.
There are musicians who figure out their live sound before their recorded sound, and other musicians who figure out the inverse. Kelly belongs in the former category. His performance was charismatic and confident, mirroring his personality. His voice, a somewhat smoother version of Kristian Matsson’s, rang out among the sparse crowd, causing more than a few in the audience to actually turn and listen. The songs were straightforward acoustic Americana/folk in the vein of the aforementioned Tallest Man on Earth. Highlights included the melancholy Cardboard Crown, much more powerful live than recorded, and a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues.” Kelly ended the set with a duet featuring concert headliner Marcus Foster, his coarser voice the perfect complement to Kelly’s.
Keep an ear and eye out for Ruston Kelly in the future.
The Lone Bellow
Marcus Foster may have been the headliner in name, but at least for this night, the majority of the crowd was there to see The Lone Bellow. And for good reason.
Leading off with “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To,” the trio from Brooklyn captured most of the audience’s attention and instantly amplifying the energy level of the ramshackle venue. I say “most of the audience” because, inevitably, there was a crowd of about 10-12 people who decided their conversations and jokes were much more entertaining that the music the audience had actually come to see, and thus spoke at a volume that ensured they could be heard over the band. It took the shouting of a good samaritan to silence them. Had I seen the man, I would have bought him several beers.
One of the hardest emotions for a musician to convey in a recorded song is joy. Not the joy caused by the subject of the song, but the joy of merely playing. Usually, it takes seeing that artist live to truly realize how much they love they have for their music, and how much pleasure they get from playing it for people. The Lone Bellow was no different. They hollered, stomped, danced, crooned and sweated throughout their set, feeding off the crowd’s energy.
Their harmonies were gorgeous and their joy authentic. “You Never Need Nobody” was, for me, the pinnacle of their performance. A shiver slithered up my spine when they got to the bridge, Zach Williams’ aching and pleading voice all but arresting the crowd.
It was absolutely one of the best, if not most energetic, performances I’ve had the pleasure to witness. By the time the set ended, a wave of exhaustion crashed over the crowd, and more than a third emptied the building before Marcus Foster took the stage.
Unfortunately, Marcus Foster had two elements working against him this night. First, the crowd, what was left at least, was stuffed. It was as if Ruston Kelly was the delicious appetizer, The Lone Bellow was the too-filling entrée, and Marcus Foster was the desert that you ordered when it seemed like a good idea, but now that it was in front of you, you could hardly muster up the strength to eat it. It wasn’t so much that the crowd was apathetic towards Foster, more that the Lone Bellow had sucked all of the energy out of the room.
Further hampering Foster’s performance that night was Foster himself. He was, to put it bluntly, drunk, and well past the “comfortable” drunk of other musicians. His bandmates, particularly his keyboardist, was visibly irritated at this. On stage, Foster happily admitted to his state of inebriation, though the second the set ended, he apologized profusely to both his band and those who went to shake hands with him afterwards, as he called it the worst performance of his career.
What was impressive about Foster’s performance, despite his state, was how effortless everything was for him. He didn’t ever have to strain to hit the right notes or suck in voluminous amounts of air before sustaining a particular lyric. It was, for the most part, an enjoyable set, as he played several new songs to go along with his more well known array of “I Was Broken,” “Shadows Of The City,” and his closer, “The Old Birch Tree.” In fact, his rendition of “I Was Broken” was terrific, as he substituted the normally melancholy piano for his electric guitar, making the song a bit more upbeat and less repetitive. It may not have been Foster’s best performance, but it was still highly enjoyable, and, because of the maybe forty people who were smart enough to stay after, it felt all the more intimate.