As I sit here typing this, my ears are still ringing a constant high-pitched buzz, but I don’t mind. Any discomfort is well worth it after the mind-blowing night I just had. I saw Kevin Devine for the fourth time, this time at the North Star Bar, and was again blown away. It’s not just his consistently top-notch performances that left me in awe–the crowd presence was phenomenal. I’ve seen Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band before, but never headlining, and never at a small venue. When I saw them open for Thrice and Brand New on previous occasions, I was really into the performance, but not everyone was. This was different. In this tiny room that can’t hold more than a couple hundred people, every single person was there for the same reason–to see Kevin and his band play.
If you don’t know anything about Kevin Devine, he started out as more or less a solo act. Just a guy and his acoustic guitar, but over the course of six full length albums his music has evolved into a full band endeavor. His most recent album, released last month, Between the Concrete and Clouds, is the first album that features the band on every song. For the first time in his career, there’s not a single song with just Kevin and his acoustic guitar. In my opinion, Kevin Devine is one of today’s most underrated songwriters. His musical catalog spans genres from the acoustic folk that dominated his 2006 album, Put Your Ghost to Rest, to the full band catchy indie rock of his latest release. His introspective, sometimes political, and richly poetic lyrics are really what made me fall in love with his music. The literary qualities his lyrics have are hard to come by, and as a lover of literature and words, I was hooked after the first song I heard, “No Time Flat,” which he opened his set with last night. Generally ignored by the mainstream music media, Kevin has built his fan base without much help besides his relentless touring schedule and opening for much bigger acts like Brand New, Thrice, Nada Surf, and Manchester Orchestra. Although it’s relatively small, Kevin has an extremely dedicated fan base, as I saw first hand last night.
The first band, Folklore, were interesting to say the least. The Philadelphia band that featured a clarinet, trombone, and occasionally a saw (yes, you can play the saw as a musical instrument, and it’s pretty awesome) played songs from their newest album. The album is a complicated concept album about the extinction of the human race and the subsequent habitation of the earth by birds and whale-human hybrids. The second band was Australian indie rock duo, An Horse, who put on an excellent and infectious performance. You couldn’t help but be impressed that the band only consists of two people as they filled the room with catchy and energetic songs. Then it was time for Kevin Devine and the Goddamn band to take the stage.
Densely packed into that sweltering and humid room, everyone was covered in sweat despite the chilly temperature outside. Halfway through Kevin’s set I started worrying that my contacts were going to fall out because the moisture in the air, or lack-thereof, was rivaling the moisture on my eyeballs. I was far too engrossed in the show to worry about it, so if they fell out, I’d just have to be legally blind for the rest of the night–no big deal, right? Noise poured out of the crackling speakers, as my ear continues to remind me now, and the Goddamn Band’s other guitarist, Mike Strandberg, raked a coffee can, drumsticks, and a portable radio across the strings of his guitar at various times throughout the performance. The intensity and emotion in Kevin’s voice was unmistakable, and he occasionally changed lyrics to make them more relevant, specifically to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Kevin openly supports the movement, and the day before he played an afternoon acoustic set at Occupy Boston.
The audience participation during some old favorites was absolutely incredible. The entire place erupted as Kevin and the band started playing “Cotton Crush,” the song that the title of this blog is taken from. The crowd screamed at the top of their lungs, “There’s cotton crush down in the southern states, but back up here, man, we’ve got so much thread and space to waste, waste, waste.” Kevin stepped away from the mic at one point and grinned as the crowd took over for him. There is a certain feeling of community, of oneness and catharsis that can only be felt at times like these. When you’re in a room full of people and every single one is singing with raw emotion. It’s moments like this that I live for. It’s why I go to concerts, and why I write about music. There’s really nothing that can replicate or even explain that feeling. There’s no words I can find to express exactly what it’s like, you just have to be there in the midst of it all. The crowd singalongs persisted through some other songs like “Brooklyn Boy,” “Ballgame,” and “Just Stay,” but to me, nothing topped that moment in “Cotton Crush.” Here’s a video I found of “Just Stay” where you can really hear the crowd singing. It doesn’t do the night justice, but it’s a start:
After an amazing set peppered with new songs and older fan favorites, the Goddamn Band left the stage and Kevin played the an older song, “Brooklyn Boy” on an acoustic guitar. For the encore, An Horse joined Kevin Devine and the Goddamn Band on stage for an intense performance of “Brother’s Blood,” the title track of Kevin’s 2009 album. Another highlight of the evening, the 8 minute song was definitely one of the most passionate performances I’ve ever seen. Kevin followed it up with the final song of the night, “Ballgame,” from his album Make the Clocks Move. Initially, the crowd sang along passionately, but Kevin added new lyrics at the end of the song. As he sang those new lyrics, no one sang, no one said a word. The silence and respect for the end of that song is something I’ve rarely heard or felt at any concert before. And then it was over.
The date of the show, October 21, was the eighth anniversary of Kevin Devine’s album Make the Clocks Move, and also the eighth anniversary of indie singer-songwriter icon Elliott Smith‘s death. Kevin cites him as a huge influence, saying that to him, Smith’s songs are simply “the best songs.” Kevin played a cover of Elliott Smith’s “The Biggest Lie,” earlier in the set and talked more about his feelings towards Smith before the final song of the encore. As Kevin talked about his admiration for Smith and how Smith’s music impacted his life, I couldn’t help but think that to some of the people in the crowd, myself included, Kevin Devine is our Elliott Smith. Don’t get me wrong, I love Elliott Smith, and I think he was an amazing songwriter, but when you don’t discover an artist until after he has died, you can never have that connection with him. That’s the connection that myself and many others feel with Kevin Devine. His lyrics speak to people, whether it’s because they agree with what he’s saying or have felt the emotions he’s capturing in his lyrics. When you hear him sing, you can just hear the emotion in his voice, you can feel it, and when two hundred other people are singing along with him…well, that’s just something special.
Here, you can watch Kevin Devine get progressively sweatier throughout the show. Unfortunately, I got no decent pictures of Folklore or Kevin’s other guitar player, Mike Strandberg, and drummer, Mike Fadem.