After seeing the names of the opening bands and the main act playing at the Music Farm on Saturday night, I expected a pleasant evening of indie folk tunes serenading a crowd of passive concert attendees. This misguided expectation could possibly stem from my inexperience with the venue or with the bands themselves (it was my first time at the Music Farm and my first time seeing Judah and The Lion). However, that prediction was shattered by the reality of upbeat music, passionate artists, and an energized crowd.
After waiting in line and getting “J L” marked on the back of my hands, the doors opened promptly at 7 PM. The venue quickly filled up, and I shuffled my way to about the second or third “row” of the general admission venue. The opening artist Tyson Motsenbocker, a Californian singer/songwriter, walked out onstage with just him and his acoustic guitar, no special entrance or introduction needed. He started off the night with the usual pleasantries before going into his first number, “Always.” This song seemed to confirm my original projection, as his finger-plucked acoustic riffs had a folky, campfire feel (it almost felt cozy), while his impressive vocals seemed to wash over the crowd. He interceded his first and second numbers with an explanation of their meanings, which may not seem like a bad idea, until it turned into a near seven-minute emotional anecdote with several pauses in between. Of course, the audience got antsy, and the crowd closer to the bar got so loud that the singer actually quieted them down before cutting his story short and moving onto to his second song, “Can’t Come Home Again.” The number had a similar sound to the first, further highlighting his vocal ability and range with higher and more sustained notes. Motsenbocker was certainly impressive, but the awkward moment between songs just caused major secondhand embarrassment instead of the heartfelt connection Motsenboker was attempting to invoke.
However, this quickly slipped my mind once The Academic came out on stage. This Irish group basically changed the entire tone of the evening with their upbeat sound and creative blends. They started out hot with “Sometimes” before frontman, Craig Fitzgerald, announced it was his birthday, warranting more applause and enthusiasm from the crowd. Later in their fast-paced set, they got some crowd participation going during their 2015 single Different, as they invited everyone to lift up their hands to certain motions during the chorus (a move that has kept the tune stuck in my head since). Their 2016 single, “Mixtape 2003” showcased the band’s eclectic indie sound that led right into my personal favorite from the set, their newest single “Bear Claws,” which highlighted their lyrical creativity and well blended sound. With their energetic motions and impromptu dancing, the young group seemed to be having just as much fun during their set as the audience had listening to them. Based on their exciting performance and original sound, these rockers are the best indie group to come out of Ireland since Two Door Cinema Club, and it’s safe to say they’ll be headlining their own sold out shows pretty soon.
The Academic’s performance excited the crowd and made it that much harder to wait between the set change in preparation for Judah and The Lion. In the moments before they came on, Hans Zimmer’s crescendoing composition “Cornfield Chase” helped build the anticipation (although I might’ve been the only person in the room to recognize the piece from Interstellar). Over this tone-setting song, JFK’s “We Choose to Go to The Moon” speech thundered through the speakers, which was certainly appropriate for Judah and The Lion’s Going to Mars Tour. Finally, the band came out to a cheeky cover of T-Pain’s, “Booty Wurk.” Afterwards, the band complimented Charleston for being the quickest city to sell out on their tour. As they went into “Twenty-Somethings,” I realized just how well the crowd knew their J&TL, as most people on the floor sang every lyric right along with them. Toward the beginning of the set, frontman Judah Akers laid out some of the guidelines for the evening, most notably that “Tonight we are family, and tonight you are just as much a part of this experience as we are.” This statement became more accurate as the night went on because of how heavily Judah and The Lion utilized crowd participation, making the evening a unique and personal experience. During “Green Eyes,” Akers split the concert attendees in half for a competition of sorts, assigning the stage right side to Team Brian (named after the mandolin player) and the stage left side to Team Nate (the banjo player), and seeing which side could sing the chorus louder.
Another one of these moments of heavy crowd participation came during their cover of The Killers’ iconic song “Mr Brightside” (one of my personal highlights of the show), in which Judah actually picked a girl out from the first row of people and handed her a microphone so she could truly live out the experience. I didn’t even get chosen to go onstage and it still felt like something out of a dream. Some of the other highlights from the set were during “Reputation,” a song about a middle school dance, when Judah showed off his dance moves that would make any preteen jealous; or during “Going to Mars,” which was preceded by an inspiring speech about our boundless ability and untapped potential as humans, and had an infectious, fast-paced sound that went perfectly with the bright laser stage lighting. Right in the middle of the set, they played one of their radio hits “Suit and Jacket,” and it seemed like everyone in the building knew the words and sang them so loudly that I could finally understand my dad’s recommendation to wear ear plugs. But that wasn’t even the loudest the crowd got. That distinction came during what was intended to be the finale, their smash hit, “Take It All Back,” in which the entire place was rocking and it seemed that nobody in the sold-out crowd wanted it to end.
Even after their set, I still wouldn’t be able to categorize their sound into a specific genre, and that’s the beauty of Judah and The Lion. They flawlessly mix folky banjo riffs (and even solos) of Nate Zurcher with the Mandolin licks of the talented Brian McDonald to go along with hip hop percussion of Spencer Cross, and of course the admirable vocals of Judah Akers, in order to create a truly original and unparalleled sound. This wide-ranging sound paired with the unique and personalized experience that they create during their live shows is the perfect recipe for an unbelievable performance. So, while the J and L may have already disappeared from my hands, the incredibly great experience I had at the Music Farm will stay with me for years to come.