Almost four years ago, I listened to Local Natives for the first time. After having spent the entire day lounging at my family’s timeshare on Lake Michigan, Spotify’s radio feature led me to “Airplanes,” “Who Knows Who Cares” and “Wide Eyes,” songs to which I would watch the sun set many times that summer. After chronicling the most relaxing summer in my personal history, they returned two years later as the soundtrack to long drives to and from club soccer practice. The perfect soundtrack for springtime, intricately woven harmonies always high in either energy or emotion — oftentimes both. I remember one drive in particular after an especially difficult practice, which culminated in diving into Reeds Lake with a teammate and still-close friend in a moment that was complemented perfectly by the youthful exuberance of Local Natives.
Years after having cemented a firm love for Gorilla Manor, the band’s debut, and Hummingbird, their more emotionally reflective second album, listening to lead single “Past Lives” in a friend’s screened-in porch during a humid July night was cathartic in more ways than one.
On Friday, March 31, at Royal Oak Music Theater, the opening notes of “Past Lives” brought all of those memories back to life as guitarist-vocalist Taylor Rice’s voice cuts through the gleeful anticipation of the room, almost as visible as the over-the-top fog pouring from the stage. The audience visibly loosens up over the course of the song, and after its close, the band launches into Gorilla Manor classic “Wide Eyes,” delivering on all of the vigor of the studio-recorded version and then some.
Although Rice announces that the band will be playing a lot of new material, four of the first six songs are from their first two albums — thankfully for anyone who found Sunlit Youth an unnecessary turn toward the indie-pop mainstream. “Villainy” follows “Wide Eyes,” and after is the devastating “You & I,” a cornerstone of Hummingbird with its soaring-yet-sorrowful nature. The band plays the heavily percussive “Wooly Mammoth” and “Airplanes,” a homage to multi-instrumentalist-vocalist Kelcey Ayer’s grandfather, before stopping to offer some between-songs banter.
Rice takes a moment to ask, once again, how everyone is doing, and then asks whether the audience is familiar with the feeling of instantaneously falling in love with a stranger, someone seen just for a moment on the subway and then gone forever. By the time he has finished the sentiment feels overwrought, but its core is still relatable. This is what the next song, “Jellyfish,” is based on, says Rice. Here, the musical performance gains another dimension, the screen behind the band pulsating in different hues of blue and green, almost emulating an actual jellyfish, rendering into hyperactive silhouettes the five men of local natives.
Next are “Heavy Feet” and Sunlit Youth highlight “Coins,” followed by the band’s most recent track, “I Saw You Close Your Eyes” — the song was originally made available only to those who were willing to literally close their eyes. Laurel, frontwoman of opener Little Scream, then joins the band for duet “Dark Days,” an unremarkable track which has for some reason or another been chosen as perhaps the best off of Sunlit Youth by fans, according to Spotify streaming and iTunes purchasing data. Here, Rice stops to thank everyone for coming and reminds us that, thanks to their partnership with Plus 1, $1 from every ticket purchase will go toward organizations that work to prevent sexual assault.
After “Ceilings,” the band plays — for the first time live — their cover of “Ultralight Beam,” which is overwhelmingly more impressive in person than via Spotify, with harmonies seemingly designed solely to coax out goosebumps. Now, all but Rice and Ayer walk offstage. Ayer announces that this next one is particularly special to him, and that he wants to make it special for us, before beginning “Columbia,” a song written in the memory of his mother. Unfortunately, a large part of the audience doesn’t seem to care — “this is the cost of breaking into the popular mainstream,” I tell myself — but the song builds, and about two minutes in, the other three walk on. The sound becomes larger; it swells and breaks and there is no better way to capture nostalgia, longing, loving, and the sorrow of leaving in four minutes.
The band then turns its mourning outward, acknowledging the dire state of national affairs — “a lot of people have been fucked over in the past six months,” says Rice — before playing “Fountain of Youth,” a cheesy, overly indulgent ode to the power of youth. The song itself feels too performative to hold weight, but one line in particular — “I have waited so long, Mrs. President” — sits funny. The originally inspirational message of the feels soured considerably since September.
Perhaps intentionally, the band then turns back the clock to 2009. The first show they played in Detroit, and the first time they played this next song live, they played in a room below freezing “to five people.” “If you know any of the words, please sing along,” says Rice. “Who Knows Who Cares” follows, fittingly, and the band walks off for an unconvincing couple of minutes before returning for “Masters” and “Sun Hands,” during which Rice floats himself out over the crowd, surfing for a couple of minutes before breaking it down onstage. In semi-classic fashion, Ayer, after noticing that his guitar’s neck had broken during the song, throws it down onto the stage, its pieces littering as the band exits.