WRITTEN BY: Jack O’Rourke
PHOTOS BY: Siena Sohn
For bands looking to make the jump from one-hit-wonder status to internationally-known touring mainstays, the tour itself often proves to be as important as the album the band is touring to promote. Enjoying success in their Canadian homeland, The Strumbellas look to grow their popularity beyond the confines of their humble home borders. Winners of the “2017 Single of the Year” as well winning and being nominated for multiple Juno Awards, The Strumbellas catapulted themselves to No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart with the folk-pop anthem, “Spirits.”
Riding the success of their hit-single, the Toronto natives made a quick stop at the quaint halls of Union Transfer on the final leg of their 2017 North-American tour. Touring in support of their third full-length studio album, Hope, The Strumbellas brought their blend of alternative-folk, pop and indie-rock to an eager audience on Friday night.
As a packed Union Transfer crowd awaited the arrival of their favorite Canadian folk band, Noah Kahan and his band took the stage to warm up the crowd. Hailed as an artist to watch in the world of folk, Noah Kahan rose to prominence with his debut single “Young Blood.” Noah Kahan’s brand of folk-pop paired perfectly with the sound of The Strumbellas’ newest album to get the night off to a great start.
The moment finally arrived. The house lights dimmed. Four lamps that looked as if they belonged in the band’s grandma’s house, were placed around the stage and lit up, revealing The Strumbellas as they waltzed on stage. Met by the thunderous roar of the crowd, the folk sextet jumped right into their set, performing “Wars” off their new album.
After thanking the crowd for their support, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Simon Ward introduced the band as a “group of rock and roll friends,” this kind of wholesome friendly vibe was present throughout the set.
The band didn’t talk for long before jolting the audience to life by playing “We Don’t Know.” Another big hit from the album Hope, the song perfectly embodies the vision Ward had for the album. On the new EP, Ward packed dark and meaningful lyrics into happy sing-along filled songs much like “We Don’t Know.” Violinist, Isabel Ritchie wooed the crowd with a mesmerizing violin solo halfway through the song. Ritchie was slowly joined by each of her other fellow musicians until the song built to its climax, before in unison belting out “Oh there’s something in my mind that’s killing me.”
The Strumbellas didn’t forget their roots; the folk rockers performed “Rhinestone” from their debut EP in 2009, My Father and the Hunter. The song started with a slower acoustic tempo featuring a duet between Ritchie and Ward, the duo were then joined by the rest of the band quickly-changing into an upbeat foot stomping tempo. Union Transfer was instantly transformed into a Southern hoedown with each member of the audience side-stepping to the beat.
For bands trying to make the most of their time touring, crowd engagement is one of the most critical parts of the show. The Strumbellas are well-practiced in the art of entertaining and got the crowd involved throughout the show. Ward asked the audience to help count off the start of the next song, the audience more than happily counted off the start of “Shovels and Dirt.” With Hope’s album artwork behind the band on the illuminated green stage, the diehard fan favorite song off the new album brought the show to the heart of the set.
The Strumbellas carried on with a very warm and welcoming atmosphere, which was a much needed change from the bitter cold outside the venue’s doors. For audience members expecting the band to just play a great set with not much else were in for a surprise. The audience was cheerfully amused by the comical on-stage antics of the band like teasing the crowd with a taste of Metallica’s “Enter the Sandman,” as well as the best dad jokes a concert ticket can buy courtesy of keyboardist, Dave Ritter.
Feeding off the audience’s energy, The Strumbellas continued to perform, what they categorize themselves as “folk pop-grass,” to the sea of flannel clothed people of the crowd. The band rattled off the foot stomping, hand clapping, laughter inducing sing-along “In This Life.”
In what was a truly unique performance, Ward asked for the audience to quiet down, so they could play a song off mic and unamplified. Ward equipped with a guitar and Ritchie with her violin, were joined by the rest of the band at the edge of the stage. The band performed the stripped down song, “The Fire” with some added background vocals from the crowd. The spine-chilling performance made Union Transfer feel much more intimate and for me was the highlight of night.
With the audience silenced by the acoustic performance, The Strumbellas revived the audience with the song, “Young & Wild.” The song showcased the group’s full arsenal of musicianship by all playing and singing in unison. Distinguishing themselves from their folk counterparts; violinist, Isabel Ritchie ditched her violin for the synthesizer with a performance that would have done Depeche Mode proud.
The Strumbellas rode that momentum through the end of the set. In a standup move, the band thanked their crew as well as Union Transfer’s, before thanking the audience for coming out for the night. The audience was clamoring with anticipation for what came next. Casual and diehard fan alike erupted into song, when Ward sang the opening verse “I got guns in my head and they won’t go, Spirits in my head and they won’t go” of their chart topping song, “Spirits.” The halls of Union Transfer echoed with every lyric with the audience and band both giving it everything they got.
The band briefly exited the stage, before returning to satisfy roaring demands of one more song. The band performed a two song encore of “Home Sweet Home” and “Wild Sun,” then exited the stage to booming applause.
Let one thing be clear, The Strumbellas are certainly not one-hit-wonders. With enough punch in their riveting live performances to pack arenas, The Strumbellas are well on their way to fulfilling their dreams of selling out arenas and winning Grammys.
The Strumbellas’ Set list:
- We Don’t Know
- End of an Era
- The Sheriff
- Left for Dead
- Shovels & Dirt
- The Night Will Save Us
- In This Life
- The Fire (acoustic)
- Young and Wild
- Ride On
- The Hired Band
- Home Sweet Home
- Wild Sun