Walking out of the Pabst Theater Saturday night, I overheard a college-aged concertgoer (who, as it would seem, had a rather meticulous concert ranking system) describe the Blind Pilot show we just saw to his friend. Going into the night, he thought this one could possibly fit nicely into the second slot of his all-time favorite concerts. But instead, it took the cake. “Genuinely fantastic,” he would continue to his friend. And I don’t think he was the only one that had to do some favorite concert shuffling after that performance. Blind Pilot enchanted the crowd with nearly an hour and 45 minute set of their beautifully fashioned indie folk pop, frequently reigning fans into all out sing-alongs.
Before Saturday night, I really only knew of Blind Pilot through a few listens of each of their albums and knowing they were coming fresh off a Friday appearance at Chicago’s Lollapalooza. However, it only took a few songs into the set before I realized I was lucky to be amongst the devout fans in the pit. “Keep it Right” off the band’s recent release We are the Tide, got the sing-along interaction started early.
The six-piece Portland band is heavily acoustic based. Frontman Israel Nebeker switched between three guitars -two of them acoustic, opting for the electric on only a few songs. Luke Ydstie enthusiastically plucked behind an upright bass. Ian Krist was on vibraphones, and Kati Claborn split time on a few instruments including banjo and a ukulele. Ryan Dobrowski held down the drums, and Dave Jorgensen jockeyed between a harmonium and keyboard, but made the largest splash on trumpet. Early in the show, Nebeker shared that Jorgensen was a Milwaukee native, and from there the crowd cheered every time his trumpet joined a song, including pinnacle parts in “Two Towns from Me” and “Half Moon.”
Seeing the band live, it’s hard to believe Blind Pilot started out as just the duo with Nebeker on vocals and guitar and Dobrowski on drums. The band in its six member form has such a strong stage presence I couldn’t imagine Blind Pilot as anything but. All the different instruments come together so harmoniously. “The Colored Night,” “I Buried a Bone,” and “The Story I Heard” all continued to please the crowd, which was rather diverse for an indie show, including everyone from teenage girls to college guys to middle-aged couples. The band led an especially inspired take on 3 Rounds and a Sound gem, “One Red Thread” on which Nebeker would break a guitar string.
Things only got richer when Blind Pilot came back out for their encore. Before kicking into “The Bitter End” Nebeker discussed the inspiration for the song. It blossomed out of the people and reactions surrounding an urgent storm warning that occurred one day when he was working as a waiter at a restaurant in Portland. The background details really enhanced the song for me and with its catchy yearnings of “Come back daddy” and “Come back baby” what’s not to love about the track? From there Blind Pilot pulled off a wonderful cover of Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.” The show closed with the band opting to sing hit track “3 Rounds and a Sound” completely acoustic. Each member brought their instruments up to the very front of the stage and Nebeker lulled to the audience not through the speakers, but directly, without a mic. It worked because of the wonderful acoustics of the beautiful Pabst Theater. It was a wonderful closing, intimate moment to an all-out impressive show.
I can’t finish the night’s review without at least touching on the sole opening band for Blind Pilot, River City Extension. The band is billed as an eight-piece from New Jersey. Although I thought only I counted seven on stage, I could have missed one with all that was happening on it. It is hard to describe their sound, but maybe: a folk band with loud, energetic rock n’ roll tendencies. Oh, also throw in a lively violin and occasional maracas. Yes, maracas. A very exciting band.
They played some songs off of their recent release Don’t Let the Sound Go Down on Your Anger, including an early set standout “There & Back Again.” River City Extension frontman Joe Michelini explained during the set that he would have loved to have sold the record to concertgoers at the show tonight but they were sold out (a somewhat good problem to have, as Blind Pilot’s Nebeker would joke later in the night when thanking the band for touring with them). However, because of the lack of physical album copies, Michelini offered to everyone in attendance a free download of the album by simply signing an email address up at their merch table. Definitely one way of making new fans. After finishing their opening 45 minute set, River City Extension received an enthusiastic ovation, one rarely displayed for an opener. Keep an ear out for them, and if River City Extension is coming to a town near you, I highly recommend checking them out.