Judah & the Lion left no doubt that their show at the Newport Music Hall last Thursday night was going to be a party, entering the stage boy band style - each with a hand-held microphone and a choreographed dance routine - while performing T-Pain’s “Booty Wurk (One Cheek At a Time).” In his white suit that acted almost like a disco ball in the neon lights, frontman Judah Akers maintained that high level of energy and fun throughout the show, spending every moment he wasn’t planted in front of his microphone dancing around the stage and engaging the crowd as well as his fellow bandmates.
After the T-Pain entrance, the band got down to their own unique style of beats, starting with “Hold On” off of their 2014 debut full-length album, Kids These Days, which showcases the banjo skills of Nate Zuercher. Unique is an adjective that is used far too frequently, but Judah & the Lion’s sound is truly like nothing else out on the airwaves today. It’s a blend of mainstream alt-rock, combined with folk, bluegrass, and Americana, with a decidedly hip-hop beat and energy driving whole venture. The band must have been tired of describing it to newcomers, and just named their second album, 2016’s Folk Hop ‘n Roll, for the simplest description of their style. Despite these seemingly conflicting sonic notions, Judah & the Lion makes it coalesce into something supremely cohesive.
The show hit its first introspective moment of the evening during “Twenty-Somethings,” which, appropriately, seemed to be the average age of the audience in the nearly sold-out Newport. Akers sang, “Running scared // Running free // Full of light // Got no money // Yeah, that's us // Twenty-somethings,” expressing the state in life of so many fresh-into-the-world young adults of college age. Later, during their cover of The Killer’s “Mr. Brightside,” Akers brought a young woman up onstage with him to help sing part of the song and dance with him. Unlike so many fans who make it up onstage only to freeze, Kristen Gallagher made the most of her opportunity, singing along with Akers, dancing, and then hugging the band before returning to the crowd.
Three of the new songs added to the deluxe version of Folk Hop ‘n Roll that was released earlier this year followed: “Going To Mars,” “Suit And Jacket,” and “Green Eyes.” Akers introduced the soaring “Going To Mars,” for which their current tour is named, by telling the crowd that the band was here for “hope and unity.” Reminding everyone that “when you go out those doors you can do anything you want,” and that that is what this song is all about.
Current radio single, “Suit And Jacket,” provided the biggest crowd sing-along to this point in the set, and is clearly a fan favorite. Finally, rounding out the trio of new songs was “Green Eyes,” during which Akers demanded crowd participation by dividing the Newport Music Hall down the middle into two sides and then judging the strength of their singing (drummer Spencer Cross was the final arbiter and declared the left side winners).
Judah & the Lion’s main set came to a close with their biggest hit to date, “Take It All Back.” From the moment Zuercher’s banjo and Brian Macdonald’s mandolin struck the opening chords of the song, the crowd went absolutely nuts, screaming and singing along with Aker. The band concluded the song with Aker crowd surfing around the pit of the Newport while the rest of the band danced at the front of the stage to just the drums and backing track.
After a brief break, the band returned to the stage for a short encore. First, Judah & the Lion were joined onstage by openers Tyson Motsenbocker and The Academic for a rendition of Bill Withers’ classic “Lean On Me.” Finally, before closing the evening with "Water," as the band does each night, Aker gave three instructions for the crowd to take with them: “(1) Eat more chocolate; (2) Be kind to people; and (3) Please listen to more Judah & the Lion.”
Before Judah & the Lion’s set, the bill featured two excellent opening acts. Singer-songwriter Tyson Motsenbocker opened the evening with a great set of soulful acoustic ballads. Motsenbocker released his debut full-length album, Letters To Lost Loves, in 2016. His short set was filled with songs overflowing with emotion that immediately drew in the early arriving crowd and clearly invested them in his music. Closing out his set with the cynical, yet deeply powerful, “In Your Name,” Motsenbocker shared with the crowd about the untimely death of his mother due to cancer just a few years ago, and how that experience informed not only this particular song, but the entire album.
The second opening act was The Academic, a relatively new four-piece indie-rock band, hailing from Mullingar, of County Westmeath, in Ireland. The band has only released one EP, Loose Friends, in 2015, and a few other singles, but have been steadily gaining accolades abroad, and earning opening slots for Twenty One Pilots, Catfish and the Bottlemen, and others. Consisting of Craig Fitzgerald (lead vocals/guitar), brothers Stephen Murtagh (bass) and Matt Murtagh (lead guitar), along with Dean Gavin (drums), The Academic are still very young, but have reportedly been playing music together since their early teens. That chemistry and confidence was evident, helping the band quickly connect with the crowd at the Newport, most of whom were likely unfamiliar with their music. All of their music features soaring sounds and lyrics, seemingly written for the bigger venues they will surely be playing soon. The highlight of the set was their newest single, the pure anthemic indie-rocker, “Bear Claws,” which was released back in July.
Check out the photo galleries below for both bands.
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Judah & the Lion: