When a band promises big changes to their sound, it can be a bit overwhelming for fans. Throughout history, many acts have managed to do this very well. Bob Dylan went electric and proved that any concerns fans had were for naught. David Bowie changed styles so often that it would have been more confusing to have him stay with one style for a long period of time. On the flip side, Dee Dee Ramone became Dee Dee King and tried hip hop.
Judging by the fact that no one is sure who Dee Dee King is, I think we can safely say that change was not so good.
So when a band like Judah & the Lion, a band that has charted on both the Billboard Bluegrass and Folk charts, schedules the release of an album called Folk Hop ‘N Roll, it’s natural for fans to have questions.
The main question: What in the name of all that is good and holy is Folk Hop ‘N Roll?
With Judah & the Lion playing a sold out performance at the War Memorial Auditorium in the band’s hometown of Nashville, it was a prime time to find out exactly what was going on.
The crowd was diverse, combining everyone from frat boys, fan girls, and hipsters to the concert elders, many of which were over the age of 45. This cross-section of their fan base showed exactly how the band has developed in recent years, a rarely seen growth that very few truly independent acts like Judah & the Lion can even dream of. The crowd was witness to background music featuring heavy electronic beats and instrumentation, a fact that, combined with a stage littered with amps and guitars, served to demonstrate that this would not be the soulful Americana and folk that many were expecting from the band.
With the crowd still streaming in, opening act Future Thieves, another Nashville local act, began their set of smart alt-rock with hints of classic American influences. The wailing guitars and beating drums had the crowd roaring. When the band launched into a raucous and energetic version of the title track of their most recent album, Horizon Line, the crowd was more than happy to dance along.
Kristin Diable, a New Orleans singer-songwriter, followed with a set that may have lacked the energy provided by Future Thieves, but definitely did not lack the sentiment. Her beautiful, soulful voice took no time in making the stage her own, beginning with “Honey, Leave the Light On,” an understated song touching on the loneliness of life on the road and a desire to return home. Her voice is certainly one of the purest soulful voices in recent memory and it was obvious that she was overjoyed to be performing the most heartfelt tunes.
The comparison between Future Thieves and Kristin Diable would serve as a perfect metaphor for what was to come. On the one hand, you have raucous Alt-rock at its best, touching on Americana influences while at the same time showing amazing energy and bravado. On the other hand, there was a stripped down simplicity focused on the songwriting.
The crowd began to push forward as Diable exited the stage, and when the custom lighting began flashing “J+TL”, the crowd began to roar.
As Judah & the Lion began, there was an immediate departure from their previous sound on 2014’s Kids These Days. The band began to play with a heavy synth sound and bass drum. The singer, Judah Akers, hit a lone floor tom and a distorted banjo was played. As if this were not evident enough of a stylistic change, the band then transitioned into a cover of Kiss’ “Rock N Roll All Nite” with Akers jumping about everywhere. The crowd was eating it up, cheering and dancing alongside the band.
With versions of “Hold On” and “Kickin’ Da Leaves”, the band continued to showcase their new sound. The folk instrumentation was still there, the harmonies were still present, but the energy had turned the two into something different, a more frantic Americana than the band has shown in previous recordings. The crowd sang along and when Akers commanded to dance, they were more than pleased to comply.
Throughout the concert, Akers commanded the crowd thoroughly. When the band led the crowd into an unexpected chorus of “Hip Hop Hooray”, a 1993 song from Naughty by Nature, no questions were asked. The call and response choruses had everyone in the lower level and the balcony swaying along. Even when everything was brought back down for a straightforward Americana version of “Sweet Tennessee,” the crowd continued to eat it up. By the time the acapella ending for “Sweet Tennessee” arrived, Akers had drawn the attention of every single person in the auditorium.
When preparing Folk Hop N’ Roll, the band was clear about their intentions of trying to capture the energy of their concerts in their new music. The heavy beats and filthy rock guitars were evident of this, but nothing showed this more than the performance of the lead single from the album, “Take It All Back.” The crisp synth and sparse instrumentation made the song a perfectly danceable number for the crowd. Judging by the dancing of the mass of people lined up in front of the stage, the crowd loved it nearly as much as the drunken girls in front of me loved selfies and popcorn.
That’s a lot.
After an elongated dance party spurred on by “Take It All Back,” Akers proclaimed, “I’m having so much fun! Golly!” This was evident as the band poured through “Mason-Dixon Line” and “Southern Ground,” both performed in all of their roots glory, before launching into the most raucous version of “I’ll Fly Away” I’ve heard since Willie Nelson interpolated it with his hit “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” It was the most people singing along to the song this side of a revival service, yet none seemed surprised when the set ended with a handful of straight alternative tracks complete with ambient guitars, synth, and heavy driving drums.
When the band returned for an encore, Akers attempted to teach the crowd the refrain from “Water,” but it was far from necessary. The crowd insisted on carrying the vocals themselves, drowning out the band. The band left everything they had on the stage as the crowds claps rang out and the effects-driven banjo spurred on a heavy rock out that left the crowd wanting more.
Midway through the set, a woman in the crowd began speaking to me about Judah & the Lion. “What they’ve done,” she said “is cut through the crap. It will just bring a tear to your eye.” That seems to be what the mission of Folk Hop N’ Roll is. While other bands have tried to conform to the glut of alternative folk and country, Judah & the Lion has created their own thing. They have cut through the crap and blended genres in a way that few bands would be brave enough to try. While it remains to be seen how much of the palpable energy can be transferred to Folk Hop N’ Roll, the worst that can be said is that the band has put in a valiant effort and has become one of the most unique acts out there to see live.
They may not be the same band that charted on the Billboard folk charts, but that’s more than okay. They’re the band they want to be.