Whitney began more or less as a songwriting experiment between housemates (and former Smith Westerns bandmates) Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek following an intense series of breakups. Both of them split with girlfriends; Smith Westerns disbanded; and Ehrlich left Unknown Mortal Orchestra, for whom he previously played drums. Though the circumstances surrounding the writing of Light Upon the Lake were bleak, the album is anything but. Centered around Ehrlich’s lofty croon, Kakacek’s easy guitar grooves, and the occasional brass flair provided by trumpeter Will Miller, Light Upon the Lake is the idyllic, nostalgic summer upon which we longingly look back.
Beginning in January 2016, after the release of single “No Woman,” the band has toured extensively across Europe and the United States with few pauses, sometimes playing more than one show a day. On October 16, the band played at Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids. The members of this country-informed, soul-infused, rock ‘n’ roll six-piece outfit are out to make a name for themselves. It’s a good thing their abilities match — if not outpace — their ambition.
Following opener Sam Evian’s appropriately whimsical set, Whitney open with “Dave’s Song,” a jangly, melancholic plea to an ex-lover. Based solely on lyrical content, one would think that a Whitney show could easily devolve into an intensely sorrowful affair. Thankfully, the band’s energy, up-for-whatever attitude and apparent failure to take themselves seriously all ensure that the net emotional effect is positive. Covers of Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” and NRBQ’s “Magnet” also help to lift the mood while testifying to the band’s relative range and acting as a humble acknowledgement of their roots.
At one point in the show, Ehrlich pauses for a moment to remind the crowd that this is the last stop on the North American leg of the tour; he wants to make it something special. Immediately following this, members of Sam Evian come on stage with a shot of whiskey for every performer, and the result is strangely affecting. At once a celebration of a good several months and a farewell between bands, that communal shot is a poignant reminder of the more immediately human side of what it means to be a musician.
Whitney then invites the Sam Evian members to stay onstage with them to help play “Red Moon,” an instrumental track whose studio cut is just over two minutes long. Of the songs on the album itself, “Red Moon” is, frankly, the most boring. Performed live, however, it is absurdly and purely fun, with more than half of the band playing unique solos that don’t appear on the recorded version.
Before beginning the song, Ehrlich notes that someone tweeted at Whitney’s account that they would buy ten albums if the band played “Red Moon” for ten minutes. A middle-aged man from the front row volunteers himself as said tweeter and, after only a moment’s hesitation, the band agrees to give it a shot. Kakacek plays two solos; Miller plays two solos; pianist Malcolm Brown plays two solos; Evian plays two solos; Evian’s backing guitarist plays two solos. And when the timer hit ten minutes exactly, the band stops. “Thanks for making us do that,” Ehrlich smiles, “but you don’t have to buy the albums.”
Given that Whitney only has one album of material, they played it all. The driving “No Matter Where We Go” was cleanly executed and had half of the room dancing. “Golden Days” — “this song is about having a girlfriend, and then, y’know, not having a girlfriend” — serves as an anchor for the show, perhaps the band’s most well-developed song. Following “Golden Days,” the band plays “The Falls” — “it’s about partying too hard and not knowing who you are.”
During “Polly,” which has become another trademark of their live show, Ehrlich and bassist Josiah Marshall share a several-seconds-long kiss. Feel free to guess at what the intent is, but it certainly livens up the show. After exhausting most of their material, Ehrlich announces that he is sick of “fake encores,” and that the band will just stay onstage and play three more songs. After roughly an hour, the band closes on “No Woman,” during which Ehrlich introduces each of the members and offers a shout-out to Sam Evian. He addresses the crowd: “Let’s hang out afterwards. Grand Rapids is a sick city.”
Whitney itself is a new project, but the experience of each of the members is clearly reflected. They are confident in the niche they have carved out for themselves and they know exactly what they want to accomplish. After having seen them three times, my desire to experience their live performance has not abated in the slightest. They are a band who know what live performance is meant to be: never the same experience, even when the same band performs in the same venue only months apart.