You don't need to be a sociologist to know when a Happening is taking place. A line of concert-goers snaking outside Off Broadway's door is a good sign. A sold-out show on an unusually busy Tuesday is another one. On a night that featured concerts by Green Day, Diane Birch and Los Campesinos! (and, uh, Motley Crue's Crue Fest), show-goers jammed into the venue to catch Portland, Oregon's Blind Pilot, a sweet, modest sextet that updates the folk-rock tradition with well-placed flourishes of acoustic and electric instruments. That's all well and good, but since when does polite acoustic rock inspire sell-out crowds?
But you also don't need to be a musicologist to grasp the appeal of Blind Pilot. The band succeeds by relying on the time-tested method of playing good songs well. Singer Israel Nebeker has the kind of voice that hits a sweet spot for many listeners, both gentle and strong in all the right places. There's a hollow lilt to his delivery that sells every line, and he didn't need to work especially hard to win the crowd over. The band stuck mostly to its debut 3 Rounds and a Sound, an album that has been absorbed by many in the crowd, as evidenced by the large number of young women mouthing the words along to each song.
It's hard to know how Blind Pilot, a relatively new band on a tiny label, got this big. It's a safe bet that many in the crowd fell for the band during its opening set at this May's Decemberists show. Maybe they heard about Blind Pilot's famed bicycle tour on NPR's Morning Edition. Ultimately, is doesn't matter. The crowd quickly fell under the sway of Nebeker's warm-blanket vocals and his bandmates' always tasteful, well-arranged performances.
Blind Pilot originally began as a guitar-and-drums duo, and the arrangements by the expanded band supplement these bare-bones beginnings. Think of Nebeker's songs as Ikea Folk: like the furniture brand, his songs can always be expanded and added upon without changing their basic character. The vibraphone lent a dreamy ambience to many of the tunes, while multi-instrumentalist Kati Claborn switched between banjo, ukulele and dulcimer with great aplomb. Even on a crowded stage, her banjo plucks sounded spot-on and hit at just the right time. Later in the set, Claborn took a turn at the microphone with the force of an Appalachian folk singer.
Claborn's interlude was well-received, but it was Nebeker's night. His humble demeanor belies the power of his songs, both in sing-alongs like "The Story I Heard" or more emotionally loaded songs like "The Bitter End." When the band was called back to the stage for a one-song encore, the band members looked genuinely grateful and a little bewildered. For good reason: with just one album under their belts, there were no songs left to play. The band should either start woodshopping some new songs or learn a few covers; if last night's reception was any indication, Blind Pilot will be performing curtain-calls for a long time to come.
Local quintet Old Lights opened the show, and its straight-ahead singer-songwriter pop provided a nice table-setting for Blind Pilot. Singer David Beeman has a wide-eyed charm on the mic, and his strummy songs come together with overdriven guitar leads and soulful electric piano. I only caught the last few songs due to the line outside the club, but the family drama of "Farthest From the Tree" was a stand-out. Old Lights will release its debut in October on St. Ives, but you shouldn't wait that long to hear them.