It’s hard to neatly box up the music of the Vibrant Sound into one cut-and-dried genre, but that didn’t matter much to the packed crowd that attended the band’s album release party at Velour Live Music Gallery in Provo on Saturday evening.
Marley and Hayley Hernandez opened the show with their brand of quiet acoustic pop. The duo’s set of original tunes called to mind the music of Colbie Caillat, only with more brains and better harmonies. (What happened to her anyway? Did she die or something?) While both Hernandezes may or may not take issue with such a broad characterization of their music, the fact remains that their catchy melodies and ethereal voices were the perfect way to ease into a night’s worth of great music.
RuRu, the stage name for 17-year-old singer-songwriter Isaac Russell, filled in the middle portion of the bill with a truly stunning performance. Eschewing the drums, pedal steel and electric guitar of his usual full band set-up, Russell took the stage armed with only an acoustic guitar and a remarkably plush-looking armchair. With a sparse backing band, comprised of only a keyboard and bass guitar, the young folk phenom enraptured the audience with a slew of stripped-down versions of tracks from his 2008 album, Elizabeth, as well as some new cuts that showed a possible glimpse of Russell’s future progression as an artist.
While his usual bombast and intensely emotional stagecraft were significantly reined in by the more subdued setting, Russell still managed to wring every last emotional and musical drop from his material. The understated arrangements placed more emphasis on the songs’ beautiful composition and dense lyricism, often delving into poetic discussions of love, loss and death. One of the set’s many highlights came when Russell invited his older brother, Spencer, and Caitlin Duncan (both of local indie-eclectic band Mudbison) onstage to provide backing vocals on the aching ballad, “Excuse.” With the crowd in the palm of his hand, Russell masterfully spun his tale of sickness, heartache and death over a cascade of shimmering “oohs” and “ahhs” from his guests. The moment perfectly encapsulated the talent and potential possessed by the young songwriter, and undoubtedly resulted in a couple sold copies of Elizabeth at the merchandise table.
Following the laid-bare folk of Russell is no easy task, let alone if your music sounds like that of the Vibrant Sound. Mixing a plethora of influences, including hip-hop, soul, R&B, funk and rock, McKay Stevens and Company certainly kicked the show’s energy up a notch from their very first note. From the moment the band launched into bouncy opener “Summertime” with Stevens’ spot-on rendition of Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song, the audience was ready to dance and it was immediately clear who they had come to see.
The band tore through a nine song set featuring numerous guests, including Provo’s favorite son, Joshua James, on keys, and comprised mostly of material off their newly released debut album, Downtown. While they also threw in a re-imagined cover or two — including a straight-up filthy (and that’s a good thing) cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” complete with Stevens laying down original rhymes, and a slow-burning version of the 80s pop classic “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” featuring Scott Shepard of The New Nervous on lead vocals — the Vibrant Sound shined brightest on their original material.
The political overtones of “The Industrial Revolution” and “The Proletariat” were not lost on the ears of the crowd, regardless of their minds’ acceptance (or lack thereof) of the messages. The mostly white audience — this is Provo after all — even responded enthusiastically to the black history anthem “Abolitionist Newspaper,” which prominently features Stevens rapping about African-American liberation over snippets of Martin Luther King speeches.
If there was ever a place to find a cultural disconnect, this would be it — but there was none to be found. It is often said that music can bridge cultures and races, and span creeds and ideologies. It seems the Vibrant Sound have discovered how to do just that — and make you dance and sing along at the same time.
Steve Pierce is the co-founder and editor of Rhombus. He generally thinks hip-hop is dead, but the Vibrant Sound gives him hope. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/steve_pierce.