Indie-folk group The Last Bison showed no signs of fatigue as they ended their nine-week, cross-country tour at Washington D.C.’s U Street Music Hall on Saturday night and led the audience in an ecstatic, sweaty Americana dance party.
With six band members and at least 10 instruments, The Last Bison rollicked their way through an hour-and-a-half long set, weaving tracks from their March EP Dorado and their 2014 album VA seamlessly with earlier albums Inheritance and Quill. The show also featured a booming, percussive cover of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.”
The band has changed its aesthetic over the years. The members used to perform in clothes more suited for the Antebellum South than the 21st century, and their 2011 debut album’s title track “Quill” is about writing old-fashioned love letters, including the lyrics, “When the ink meets quill/With love my letters are filled/Let us seal this love as the back/Of the envelope’s sealed with wax.”
The band’s early music is evocative of its beginnings as family friends from home, school and church in Chesapeake, Va., filled with lush string instruments, full choral harmonies and Christian-infused lyrics. “Quill” closes with “Searching hard we will fully rely/On the words of the one crucified.”
Both in recordings and live on stage, the band’s music feels very organic and rustic as if it were just accidentally falling into place. Lead singer Ben Hardesty’s voice is as thick, rough and bristly as his reddish-brown beard. Violinist Teresa Totheroh, a tiny curly-haired blonde, smiled into her instrument as if the two of them were sharing intimate inside jokes. From this writer’s vantage point, at least a third of the band performed barefoot.
Besides ditching the Little House on the Prairie garb for contemporary yet still church-ready clothes, The Last Bison proved they’ve grown into a sexier sound when they transitioned the crowd from hollering and stomping along to early favorite “Dark Am I” to the Gypsy Dip, a sensual hip swaying dance move with arms flung in the air.
The crowd was very into this transition. Try to imagine a hundred or so women in sweet sundresses and scruffy lumbersexual men letting their hair down and slowly gyrating back and forth to banjo player Dan Hardesty’s riffs and the deep warbles from Amos Housworth’s cello. The whole affair conjured a sense of musical and spiritual awakening, like a bunch of jaded teenagers sneaking out of church to fool around in the woods.
Above all, The Last Bison celebrated music itself through enthusiastically playing and jumping along to their textured tracks. All of their songs embrace unconventional rhythms and sounds, like the piercing sounds percussionist and backup vocalist Annah Housworth created by sliding a cello bow across the side of a metallophone key.
As suggested by the shout-out to their home state in their newest album title, the band’s focus has expanded beyond a celebration of religion and love to include a deep gratitude for their home state of Virginia.
VA’s opening track “Bad Country” helps the listener “feel the wind is blowing South again.” The band even threw official “Virginia is for Lovers” trucker hats into the crowd at the end of the show. This writer loves the “Virginia is for Lovers” t-shirt she wrangled from the hands of some overzealous high school kid at the edge of the stage.
The opening band, Nashville folk duo Neulore, also inspired enthusiastic audience participation with their dramatic set. Faced with a crowd that seemed largely unacquainted with their repertoire, the band won the room over with the luscious juxtaposition of gritty and soulful vocals against folksy, pulsing guitars.
Band members Adam Agin and William T. Cook chose an appropriate name for their band; the combination of Agin’s side-buzzed swooping hair with his Southern Sam Smith-style voice definitely evokes a new breed of folk.
Fittingly, Neulore’s rendition of Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” was a standout among their set, along with a tender acoustic performance of “Don’t Shy From The Light,” a song that Agin dedicated to anyone in the audience who had ever gone through a rough time.
Neulore’s appeal stems from more than just their innovative take on folk music. Although Agin insisted that he and Cook are “really not cool at all,” they came across as achingly and effortlessly cool. They raised a toast to the crowd to celebrate the night, and the end of their tour with The Last Bison, clinking their drinks with whatever the audience had in their hand.
Overall, The Last Bison and Neulore’s show was a toast to passionate and innovative folk, a simultaneous salute to the South and a reinvention of Americana complete with boisterous, crowd-sourced choruses, like a “cheers, y’all” set to music.