The word love gets thrown around a lot in music. In so many cases throughout music history, it’s just a lyric, meant to fill up space or sell records. Robert Plant wailed about love, disbelievingly, in almost all of Led Zeppelin’s songs. The Beatles cashed in on it more than anyone. And forget about all of the ’80s “love songs,” ballads to show the softer side of hair rock’s champions (re: the only songs not about genitals, sometimes). But recently, singers in the folk revival, like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, have put renewed meaning to the word. These singers produce beautiful melodies and haunting harmonies to support pained lyrics of love, loss and longing; it stops listeners cold, forcing them to swallow back that thing in your throat that lets you know you’re about to cry like a baby. So when Peter Liddle belts “I was prepared to love you/And never expect anything of you,” the packed crowd at Beat Kitchen in Chicago on May 24 really felt it. The first two rows comprised glistening eyes and hands over hearts.
Such is the effect of Dry The River, a band from Stratford, England. They recently released their first full-length, Shallow Bed, for which they are currently touring the U.S. in support. The gorgeous LP has gotten the band comparisons to Mumford & Sons, and other modern folk revival acts, which the group appreciates but doesn’t totally agree with. Drummer Jonathan Warren cites many bands in the post-hardcore scene for his drumming style, which he says drives the band’s live set and separates their sound from some of their contemporaries.
The five members; Peter Liddle, Matthew Taylor, Scott Miller, Jonathan Warren, and William Harvey wasted no time establishing their differences from other acts that wield three-part harmonies, violin players and acoustic guitars; pounding into the soaring chorus of “No Rest.” Despite the energy emitted from “No Rest,” the band spent the first third of the set finding its footing, struggling with the monitors and working to adjust levels after each song. It was toward the end of the instrumental build in “Demons,” when Warren decided not to bother with the fluctuating sounds from his monitor, and instead just laid into the drums with mallets, sticks and a heavy hand. After the crowd cheered approval for the incensed performance, Liddle proclaimed “We’re warmed up now,” as they relaxed and cut loose, allowing Warren to hit harder and everyone else to move around more.
For such serious songs, the band appeared to have a great time on stage; talking with the crowd and graciously accepting their reactions.
Bassist Scott Miller spoke to the audience the most, saying Chicago was the loudest and best crowd they had seen yet, and that he found the “hipster brew” PBR to be refreshing and smooth. Miller’s charming banter allowed Liddle to rest his voice between songs, as he recovered from what he said was the “worst sickness I’ve ever had,” causing the band to cancel some tour dates.
There were very few instances throughout the set where this showed. If anything, the additional breathiness of his voice enhanced the set’s more hauntingly quiet melodies, and added to the raw passion of his high-range Buckley-esque wail. Though the three part harmonies are a staple of Dry The River’s live performance, it’s Liddle’s entrancing voice that makes the sound so special. It is rare to see a singer so comfortable with his full range, and he used this power over and over again to command the audience.
The set highlight was at the beginning of “Weights & Measures”. Liddle, Taylor and Miller stood far back on the stage, forcing the audience to silence to hear the faint harmonies barely registering with the reverb from the microphones. The song picked up in volume, as Dry The River relished their ability to control a wall-to-wall, stage-to-door crowd by playing as quiet as possible, whipping into an intense break-down, and starting over with eerie melody.
The audience sometimes had trouble responding to the changing moods, but the band performed a kindness finishing the set with a roaring encore. “Lion’s Den” ends with a charging instrumental build, full of crashing cymbals, walls of guitar effects and screaming punctuations of “You took me to the lion’s den/And waited for the beast to begin.” After an hour long set of emotional, sometimes tear-inducing material, this encore allowed everyone, on stage and off, the catharsis needed to leave it all, including the lump in the throat, behind.