They say that insanity is doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Having already seen The Lumineers live twice in the past few years, seeing them graduate from playing mid-sized venues to selling out major stadiums, I felt like I had a pretty clear idea of what to expect for the third time around. Even for a band with a track record for surprising me, there are only so many ways that a band to up their game in a live setting. After their most recent record fell a little flat, I wondered how well the new material would translate to a live setting, and how their latest tour would hold up compared to previous gigs. I’m pleased to report that the band are still at the top of their game when it comes to delighting a crowd, and they managed to pull a few more tricks from out their sleeves.
After two years of gigs being cancelled and rescheduled, for a short while I wondered if this too, my first arena event since the pandemic started, would ultimately end up not going ahead. Albeit, not down to Covid (for a change), but rather down to Storm Eunice tearing up The O2’s roof less than a fortnight prior. But there was no sign of whatever damage remained; the place was immaculate, and the stage was set for the night’s opening act Gregory Alan Isakov. Now, here is an artist that’s been sitting on my radar for a while but never really clicked. One of those acts which you should love on paper but for whatever reason you’re just not hearing it yet. As so often is the case with these situations, hearing the songs live proved to be just the inciting spark I needed. Gregory was perfect pick for an opener; his rustic folk styling nicely complimenting the headliners, while his darker and often more introspective approach offering a markedly different tone. Less campfire sing-along, and more watching the smoke and embers drift up into the night sky. There were some beautiful moments of hypnotic reverie, but also some moments of cathartic release, particularly where the violinist went full Warren Ellis and played like a man possessed.
Taking their stage set-up to the next level, The Lumineers this time around had a round catwalk arrangement that went out into the crowd. Quite frankly it was a stroke of genius that really played to their strengths as a band, which became apparent right from the first song as a flowery drumkit, with Jeremiah Fraites at the ready, rose from within the catwalk right in front of me. Even folks who only know The Lumineers for ‘Ho Hey’, and haven’t dived into their underrated back catalogue, will know that they thrive on call-and-response and audience engagement. What better way to do that than being out amongst the crowd? I think it really energized the whole experience for everyone involved. The crowd around me were singing and dancing the whole night long, finding extra fuel in the tank whenever one of the band walked by, and the band themselves were clearly loving every minute of it. A special shout-out has to go to the piano player Stelth Ulvang – for running barefoot around the catwalk, throwing his tambourine about, singing at the top of his lungs, dancing atop his piano and just generally being the life of the party.
The combination of the live atmosphere and the extra bandmates at Wesley and Jeremiah’s right hand, really gave some of the new material the kick it needed. The sparser arrangements that so desperately felt like they had something missing could finally be filled out with extra instrumentation and crowd participation. Tracks like ‘Brightside’ and ‘AM Radio’ fit right in amongst old favourites like ‘Cleopatra’ better than I would have expected. A few of the new tracks like ‘Birthday’ and ‘Where We Are’ still, despite the extra help, felt like the weakest part of the setlist, but thankfully the band didn’t get too bogged down in new material. Though The Lumineers had a few more surprises in store than I had initially expected, some things never change: namely a crowd-pleasing set, front-loaded with their biggest hits. And knowing that there’ll always a great night in store, I’d be more than happy seeing the band time and again further on up the road. Quite frankly, I’d be insane not to.