When I interviewed Grizfolk for a feature in Paste Magazine last month, they were gearing up for their first headlining tour. I asked them what they had learned opening for bands like Bastille, Twenty One Pilots, and Smallpools, and keyboardist Sebastian Fritze talked about the power of a setlist to weave a narrative. “It’s gonna be a little bit more of a story to the whole live performance, having its peaks and its more intimate and calm moments,” he told me. Last night at Lincoln Hall, Grizfolk delivered on that promise–and better yet, their set conformed so closely to my ideal of their set that I thought they were reading my mind.
Max Frost, a musical polymath from Austin, Texas, opened the evening with a one-man bonanza. Before he took the stage, I assumed that the presence of three microphones on stage meant there would be three members of his band. That was foolish of me. Frost manned all three mics at various points in his set, depending on whether he was playing guitar, bass, keyboard, or drums. His rangy voice had a subtle Southern twang without being obnoxiously country; I compare it, favorably, to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. For the most part, Frost sang well and strongly, with only a slight faltering in the third song of the set–after which he asked a girl in the crowd for some water, calling his throat a desert. It was all very charming. He was all very charming, playing up the role of young, excited gentleman throughout.
Musically, Frost’s songs varied from the dense, electro-infused sonic palette of “White Lies” to the bluesy, mournful “Die Young,” for which he turned off all his loop pedals and stuck to guitar. As impressive as his multi-instrumental dexterity was, I wish he would’ve stuck to guitar throughout and brought a band to play the other instruments. By the end of the show, I had habituated to the novelty and was simply left with a subpar stage presence, particularly when Frost drummed and sang simultaneously with a look of glazed focus in his eyes. His guitar playing is quite skillful, his best stage moments came during the aching solos he performed, and taking out the element of dashing between instruments would allow him to engage the crowd more effectively during the songs, not just with aw-shucks banter.
After the requisite break, Grizfolk took the stage, all sporting beards and all (except drummer Bill Delia) dressed in black, looking like the Platonic form of a hard rock band. They led off with the expansive “Into the Barrens,” the first track off their recently-released debut album Waking Up The Giants, and the performance merely grew from there. Every time I’ve seen Grizfolk–thrice now–I’ve been impressed by the sheer space their performance occupies, both in terms of their music and their physical stage presence. All five members of the band move around with ease, not forcing energy that isn’t there and not remaining drearily still unless the music calls for it. Of particular pleasure to watch were Brendan James, the bass player whose smile never left his face and who proved especially adept at encouraging audience participation, and Adam Roth, the passionate frontman with a touch of outlaw grit in his voice. Putting the two next to each other on stage was a great call.
One interesting thing about Grizfolk’s music: I prefer the live version to the recordings. That’s because the wordless hooks that populate almost every song feel like they were specifically constructed to become stadium anthems. Now that the band is headlining shows and playing in front of their fans, that’s starting to happen. The crowd took pleasure in participating, doing surprisingly well on even the more complex vocal melodies of “Vagabonds” and “Waiting For You.” At points, the band instructed the audience to perform various tasks, such as belting out the chorus of the band’s most recent single, “Bob Marley,” and jumping vigorously during the breakdown of “Cosmic Angel,” turning that love-colored Americana power ballad into an indoor beach rave. Roth did a nice job of balancing his guitaristry with his ability to dominate the microphone.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Grizfolk’s performance, though, was the way they seemed to anticipate every potential criticism I would have had of the set they created. About nine songs into the set–around the time of “Wide Awake”–I started to get a little fatigued with the show. The songs were starting to blend together, and I was on the verge of checking my watch for the first time. Then…WHAM! Drum solo! Bill Delia started going crazy on the kit. After a couple minutes, Fritze picked up a drumstick and began wailing on Delia’s cymbals while James and guitarist Fredrik Eriksson jammed. All of a sudden, I was excited again. A similar moment came at the very end of the main set, when Eriksson began what would be a lengthy solo. He had stood off to the side of the stage for most of the show, and I wanted him to come to the forefront and shred like a true lead guitarist. As that thought made its way down my arm and into the pen I was using to scribble notes, suddenly there he was at the front of the stage, leaning into the crowd and radiating pure soul from his instrument! I’d like to think I was controlling things telekinetically, but more likely, Grizfolk just did an excellent job keeping things interesting.
The chants of “Grizfolk! Grizfolk!” that preceded the encore got out of sync very quickly, so the band came out and performed a stunning rendition of “Way Back When,” featuring Eriksson on guitar, Roth on lead vocals, and James, Delia, and Fritze gathered around a second microphone contributing only their voices. They followed that up with the title track from Waking Up The Giants and then closed with “Hymnals,” clearly a crowd favorite. By the end, Lincoln Hall was going nuts and the five band members bade the crowd a fond farewell. Numerous times throughout the set, Roth called Chicago Grizfolk’s “second home,” and given the reception they got, I can see where he’s coming from.
My only complaint is that the band didn’t play their outstanding cover of “Suffragette City”–a Bowie tribute would’ve been sweet. But at this point, they can captivate a crowd with over an hour of their own music, so I don’t blame them for eschewing it. All in all, Grizfolk proved that they’re more than capable as headliners, and I fully expect them to be playing a bigger venue when they return to Chicago.