US indie band Whitney have really been bubbling under the surface in 2016, only to sneak onto some of the most prestigious Album of the Year lists this month, something that will surely find them a far wider audience as they continue to tour their debut album Light Upon the Lake into 2017. Channeling a nostalgic, 1960s folk sound, the Chicago band came about following the break-up of guitarist Max Kakachek’s previous band, The Smith Westerns, in 2014. In fact, Whitney are quite the unlikely super-band, with drummer and lead vocalist Julien Ehrlich also previously playing drums for psychedelic rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Together the duo have crafted their own brand of heartfelt, soulful alternative rock, which often finds itself leaning towards Americana and has been compared with Bon Iver’s earlier material. Last month I was fortunate enough to take to the SS Thekla, one of Bristol’s finest and most innovative venues (it’s on a boat) to catch the band.
the duo have crafted their own brand of soulful rock leaning towards Americana
First however I’m going to have to mention the band’s excellent support act, Aussie songstress Julia Jacklin. Playing her first set in Bristol, off the back of releasing another of the year’s best debut albums in Don’t Let the Kids Win (I thoroughly recommend), Jacklin had already accrued a sizeable audience. In fact, its fair to say that it was unusually large for your average support act, with many of the audience (which seemed something of a bearded hipster gathering), already familiar with her tracks.
An absorbing and all too short set saw her play some of her best tracks off the record, with highlights including the waltzing ‘Pool Party’, a stirring solo rendition of ‘LA Dream’, whilst ‘Leadlight’ and ‘Coming Of Age’ also impressed as full band numbers. However, possibly the best song was Jacklin’s set closer, the swooning title track ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’, a visceral fusion of country and alternative folk. A thoroughly enjoyable opening act and with airplay from the likes of BBC 6 Music and her debut record garnering a positive critical reception, it looks like Jacklin is one to look out for.
Then we move to the main act of the evening. Coming the day after Trump’s victory, Whitney were in surprisingly high spirits, especially given that the band were very active on twitter the night before, with the hoodie-wearing frontman Julien Ehrlich banning the mention of his name. Tearing through all ten tracks off of debut album Light Upon the Lake, the band began with the intricate riffing of ‘Dave’s Song’ set to a wandering bass line and complete with the full brass backing. This was swiftly followed by the tight guitar licks of ‘No Matter Where We Go’, an earnest, feel-good track that even sees Kakachek show off his flair on a guitar solo that harks back to the heyday of the Smith Westerns.
There’s a certain nostalgic, whimsical charm to Whitney
When not on vocals duty, Ehrlich controls the room well, giving insight into the background behind the songs (as you may have expected, most are about failed relationships) and joking about the current state of America. His vocals are a defining part of Whitney’s sound, treading a thin line between whiny and graceful, much the way Neil Young did many decades ago. There’s definitely a certain nostalgic, whimsical charm to Whitney, something that is showcased on tracks like the brass-heavy ‘Polly’, meandering ‘Golden Days’ and their actually quite successful cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’ from the 1969 album Nashville Skyline.
The band closed the main section of the set on the pleasant, alt-country infused ‘Follow’ before coming back to perform arguably the two best songs off their debut album. The soft and reflective titular track, ‘Light Upon the Lake’ works well as a quieter moment in the set that emphasizes the subtle nuances in Ehrlich’s voice, as well as complimenting the noodling and complex guitar-play of Kakachek.
The mood then quickly shifts for an upbeat cover of NRBQ’s ‘Magnet’, with the band encouraging the audience, which had largely been static for much of the set, to take one of the few opportunities to “get moving”. Finally they ended on by far their biggest hit to date, ‘No Woman’, a song met with warm recognition from the otherwise fairly quiet audience. The floating guitar riffs and hazy vocal delivery acted as a fitting and breezy end to what was a very chilled and pleasant evening.