Pinegrove with Whitney Ballen at Emo's Austin, Texas, February 21, 2020 | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Friday, August 7th, 2020  

Pinegrove

Pinegrove with Whitney Ballen at Emo’s Austin, Texas, February 21st, 2020

Feb 27, 2020 Photography by Christa Joyner Moody Web Exclusive
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Not many bands have fans that are fully familiar with all four of their albums down to rote memorization of all lyrics and instantaneous notice of a shift in any song's structure. That's four albums if you want to include Pinegrove's 2014 compilation Everything So Far, but it has pretty well been canonized as one of their albums. With only two more shows ahead of them on this first leg of the Marigold tour, the band fortunately made their way into Austin after a 16-hour roadside breakdown somewhere outside El Paso.

First up to play to the sold out Friday night crowd at Emo's (a club whose interior is wholly unexpected given its grubby surroundings) was Seattle-based opener Whitney Ballen. Her reedy voiced tales from her debut album, You're a Shooting Star, I'm a Sinking Ship, played well to an attentive crowd. Her three-piece backing band moved easily from the folky whisper of "Rainier" to more powerful moments like the skronky "Nothing." The set's peak moment came on the rolling boil of "Mountain," after which she told the crowd that she had relayed to the El Paso crowd a few nights earlier that it was a song about something they didn't have around there. The West Texas city is surrounded by mountains, to which Ballen admitted they had arrived at night.  Playing to her largest audience to date, Ballen bears keeping an eye on. 

Pinegrove is operating as a six-piece band these days. Co-leader Evan Stephens Hall and long time musical partner Zack Levine (drums) were joined by Nick Levine (pedal steel/guitar), Megan Benavente (bass), Sam Skinner (keys, guitar), and Josh Marré (guitar). With four guitars in play on several songs, the group could bring a modicum of noise when needed. But for the most part, the individual songs were carefully constructed set-pieces with several variations of recorded tracks on display. 

Each of Pinegrove's albums has developed a personality of its own, and this shone through in the live setting. Of course, most of Marigold was played (oddly the made for the Texas Hill Country shuffler of "Neighbor" was skipped), but the band started with a few from Everything So Far. The first song was a slowly rolled out "Overthrown" that was followed by a precisely played "Recycling." These earlier songs are earmarked by an uncharacteristic intricacy for a band that was just starting out. The later played "Morningtime" allowed for Levine to showcase the most caustic solo of the night. 

For those of us whose first introduction to the band was via 2016's Cardinal, these songs shone particularly bright several years on. "Cadmium" was played early in the set and carried with it the initial joy of taking in Cardinal's measured looseness. Levine's perfectly paced percussion paired up with low notes provided by Benavente allowed Hall his most expansive bounds to get more emotive with his singing and soloing. "Old Friends" started with Hall singing off mic and not surprisingly he continued to be met equally by the crowd. The band's take on "Aphasia" ended up one of the highlights of the night. Marré's blistering slide solo was one of the evening's best and rivaled what you would have heard across town at Antone's in its bluesy heyday. 

Though songs like the title song and "Light On" from Skylight were cast mostly in that album's gentler hue, the group took liberties with other tracks. "Rings" was both considerably faster paced than the album track, but also left plenty of room for Levine to color things up with pedal steel. Skinner's finest contribution on keys of the night came on the delicate "Light On." The second half of "Darkness" was given a starkly expressive read by Hall that invoked a further sing-along.

But of course, a good portion of the set was appropriately given over to playing the balance of Marigold. The album showcases several moments of Hall's strongest songwriting to date and also the band's tightest playing. Not surprisingly this momentum carried over to the live set as well. First played from the album was the short meditation of "Spiral," that transitioned to one of the album's finest, "Alarmist." The unmistakable lead in gave way to Marré and Levine trading solos on alternating verses. "No Drugs" was given a more powerful frame and quicker pace, while "Dotted Line" was ragged and peppered with the specifics that Pinegrove fans love to adopt as their own. As one would wish for, Hall saved Marigold's best for last in an impassioned read of "Endless." Earlier Hall dedicated a song to those on the edges of the audience and indicated that their songs were written for those on the edge. "Endless" embodies that feel as well as anything in their catalog. Letting everyone off the emotional hook, Pinegrove closed with a jangly and energetic take on "New Friends," or as it has been alternately titled after the song's main character-"Dr. Steve."      

Pinegrove seem to be well back on track to continue their rising arc of popularity. My first time catching them was just after Cardinal's release as the opener of a four-band card. Though their set back then started 15 minutes earlier than advertised, it only took moments to witness their promise. Less than four years later, with an extended hiatus to boot, the band has progressed to an unquestioned headliner and have well surpassed the popularity of those they played with not so long ago. Putting on sterling sets after 25 hours on and at the side of the highway will tend to get you where you're headed.

After one of their longest continuous runs to date, the band will be taking a deserved break before setting off on an extensive run of U.K. and European dates before more U.S. dates in the Summer, including appearances at Governor's Ball and Bonnaroo.           

www.pinegroveband.com

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