Originating in Denver, Colorado, The Lumineers brought the wide-open spaces and blue skies of the Centennial State to Brooklyn's Barclays Center on Valentine's Day night.
The concert made for an interesting date night because–like love, like relationships–their music walks the line between celebration (Ho Hey) and commiseration (Jimmy Sparks) with ease.
Some might call them roots rockers while others might categorize them as alt-country with a healthy dose of classic rock on the side. Whatever you choose to call them, earnest vocals and a heavily acoustic sound–guitars, piano, fiddle, with nary a synthesizer in sight–and their stories of ordinary life have won them a huge audience. They can get a crowd of thousands singing along with them, but the music they make remains human and accessible, with a strain of melancholy running through the songs and echoes of The Band, Dylan, and Neil Young.
Currently, The Lumineers are on a world tour promoting their most recent album, III–an ambitious work that deals with the effects of addiction on the fictitious Sparks family: Gloria, the matriarch; her son, Jimmy; and her grandson, Junior. It's a powerful, somber album that reflects changes in the lives of the group's songwriters, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, who both became fathers in 2018. The fragility of life couples with a cold, hard look at alcoholism within III's emotionally devastating song cycle.
Mid-concert, lead singer, Wesley Schultz, talked about addiction, how he'd worked to support a family member's journey through rehab and homelessness, and how these dependencies reverberate throughout the country, through all our lives. I was there in the pit, with 150 people around me. A few parents had their children on their shoulders; those kids knew every song word-for-word. I was alone with my thoughts in a sea of others, listening to songs about addiction and the great slide into oblivion.
I recently learned that my brother-in-law, Jorge, died from alcoholism in San Francisco. He'd lost his restaurant, his home, his family–then his heart gave out completely. The Lumineers' song cycle provided me time to think about Jorge and reminded me that others have gone down this road before. Addiction's not something to hide; it's something we must discuss and share if we're ever going to evolve.
Several numbers from III featured videos directed by Kevin Phillips. Alongside a live feed of Wesley Schultz doused in blue and then red light, with fly-away sparks layered on top, depictions of the hardscrabble lives of the Sparks family evoked a contemporary version of the Joad family from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Schultz and Fraites clearly identify with that brand of American Realism, with its domestic tribulations and occasional, brief joys.
Towards the end of the evening, they covered Leonard Cohen's "Democracy," from the Canadian Bard's 1992 album The Future. How prescient his lyrics are:
I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen…
Cohen said of the piece, "It's not an ironic song. It's a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy."
During these months and years of political challenges, it's heartening to join in, unified with an audience singing Cohen's words: "Democracy is coming / to the U.S.A." The song ended with percussionist, Jeremiah Fraites, drumming alone, pounding out the rat-ta-tat-tat of revolution. The snare drum cut out early, leaving us with the question: "What's next?"
It was cold on Valentine's Day evening. When the concert was over, the crowd scattered, heading for their cars, slipping into taxis, disappearing into the subway, on their way to whatever's next.