Nashville indie-rockers Daniel Ellsworth & the Great Lakes took the stage at Emerald Lounge last Friday following a lush, harmony-strewn (and Fleet Foxes-esque) set by local band Wash Hollow. Ellsworth and his band have been touring behind last year's release, Civilized Man, and have worked the songs out to wrench-tight arrangements — in a good way.
The band launched immediately into "Bleeding Tongue," the high energy piano-rocker that kicks off Civilized. Ellsworth played keys with one hand and tambourine with the other, his role as bandleader involving both some intricate musicianship ("Bleeding Tongue," like most of Civilized's offerings, is a decathlon of movements, time signature changes and moods — including a break that's nothing but soft piano chords and kick drum heavy enough to rattle bottles) and personal relations. Half-dancing, crouched over his chair, Ellsworth drew in the crowd. It's hard to watch an intense performance and not get up close to the stage.
Ellsworth was not only a cheerleader for his own band, but for his opener, announcing at one point, "Wash Hollow, I'm know your parents are here, but you're f*cking awesome." He also told the crowd, before launching into the band's single, "Shoe Fits," "This is our dance song. We were in Asheville all day and we saw people just randomly dancing in the street, so we know you can dance here."
The band put everything into each song (and the light show above the Emerald Lounge stage certainly added to the effect). "Take Your Time" felt cinematic — like it could have been scoring a club scene in a movie — though, for all the orchestration and high-minded composition of Ellsworth's songs, they're also easily digestible and right at home in a small venue.
The Great Lakes doesn't really do slow songs — each number is a full-power play — but "Surrender" started out softer, with jabs of bass, cymbals and a lightly skipping guitar part. Ellsworth and company are defined by their sense of dynamics and absolute control. Tempos, emotional shades, the way the front man's vocal launched from a forceful delivery to a cool falsetto. All of these are reigned in, then cast out, then swept back into an unshakable center.
At one point, the entire band stopped on a dime, with only Timon Lance (or according to my notes, "the handsome guitarist with his handsome hollow body guitar") playing what proved to be not a solo so much as a bridge into the next song.
Where Lance's playing was all quickness and lightness, Ellsworth seemed to wring each song from the very core of his being — an interesting juxtaposition and nice balance, both sonically and visually.
Ellsworth announced, from the stage, that the group had performed at Montreat College the night before and were nearly shut down by the police for playing too loudly. "This is the song they wanted to turn down," he said before opening "Follow Me Home," one of the few numbers Ellsworth plays on guitar.
That was followed by a new song, "Frontline," a driving rocker, pushed to a frantic pace by the drum kit. There, the soundscape toed the line between dissonance and big, round notes. Ellsworth broke out a near-freakout, Jerry Lee Lewis-style attack on the keys before melting into falsetto. A piano break led into a tense drum part that built to four-piece vocals and then the sort of sharp false start that rock songs dream of.
After that, Ellsworth asked the crowd, "Is everyone okay?"
Someone shouted back, "Are you okay?"
He laughed, "I might die. But that's okay."
The band wrapped its set with "Wolf Is Me," with Ellsworth back on guitar. The song started as the quietest of the evening, all brooding tones and hints of country noir. But it quickly opened to a pummel of strings and drums. Layers of instrumentation bolstered a ravaged vocal (ravaged more in thematic suggestion than actual battered vocal chords: Ellsworth's is an infallible voice that seems to go easily where he wills it). The song bucked and galloped up to a climax of shimmery, spooky vocals and then a final last sprint of heavy drums and shakers. If a great set has to end, that's the way to do it.