You know your performance profile is rising when you get to open for the president of the United States.
That's exactly where the Lumineers found themselves one year and one week ago. A radio sensation thanks to a wide-eyed folk-pop reverie called Ho Hey and a self-titled debut album that was generating sold-out concerts around the country, the band was topping a bill in its home base of Denver. The show served as a warm-up for the first nationally televised debate between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
Registrations were held for students, faculty and alumni of the University of Denver, which was hosting the debate. Allotted tickets were gone quickly, streets around the campus were closed off and the event kicked into gear.
The Lumineers and the president. As the old saying goes, "Good gig."
The debate show was just one of the career accomplishments the Lumineers has chalked up during the past 18 months. Some, admittedly, were mightier than others
On the upside, the band's self-titled debut album crested at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart. That followed the No. 3 landing of Ho Hey a few months earlier. Both recordings reached platinum status in sales. For a new band that was largely unknown outside of Denver a year earlier and on an indie label (Nashville's Dualtone Records), those were all serious victories.
Then there were this year's Grammy Awards. The Lumineers received two nominations and got to perform Ho Hey at the ceremony (as cameras shot to celebs like Taylor Swift singing along), but the band walked away empty- handed. The loss, it seems, has not soured the band's convictions about its music or slowed an international fan base that continues to swell.
"Even when I was working at a sushi bar and nobody was coming to our shows, I felt successful," Lumineers cellist and harmony singer Neyla Pekarek told the Telegraph newspaper in London shortly after the Grammy loss.
In almost every other way, the ascent of the Lumineers, which declined requests for an interview, to the top of an ever-expanding new generation of folk-rock jamboree acts has been a Cinderella story. It began with a pair of industrious New Jersey songsmiths, guitarist/vocalist Wesley Schultz and drummer/percussionist Jeremiah Fraites.
"I always enjoyed singing," Schultz says in a DVD documentary included in a deluxe edition of The Lumineers released in August. "I wanted to sound like Frank Sinatra at Yankees games when they would win."
The Yankees never called. Eventually, Schultz and Fraites moved to Denver, where they met Pekarek after placing an ad on Craigslist. "We seek not a hobbyist but a like-minded person who wishes to play and perform original music," the ad stated. "We call ourselves The Lumineers."
The thrust of the music that surfaced on an indie EP in 2010 and in more realized form on The Lumineers in the spring of 2012 was all pop. Nothing else explains the melodic simplicity and overall infectiousness of Ho Hey. The tune sounds like a perfectly chirpy radio confection until you listen closely to the lyrics and discover it essentially is a break-up song.
The sound under the well-disguised turmoil has folkish strains — meaning the guitar drive is predominantly acoustic while the drum foundation isn't as beat-driven as conventional rock music. It's leaner and more spacious, providing a sound that falls somewhere between anthemic and homey. That combination also has won the Lumineers numerous comparisons to the daddy act of the new folk-pop movement, Mumford & Sons. But the Lumineers' music seems to fall in more devoutly with the pop camp.
Today, the Lumineers are a quintet with the additions last year of bassist Ben Wahamaki and pianist Stelth Ulvang. As the band heads to the University of Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum on Friday as proven folk- propelled pop stars, there will be a strong reminder of its roots within its ranks. Opening the concert will be fellow folk stylist and Denverite Nathaniel Rateliff, who preceded the Lumineers at the debate concert in October.
"I just think people are enamored of going into a room and watching people play their own instruments and sing, rather than using Auto-Tune and a lot of digital equipment to get their music across," Fraites told the Chicago Tribune shortly after the initial release of The Lumineers. "There is so much digital-ness all around us. People are almost taken aback when you do the opposite of that. It's inspiring."
IF YOU GO
Lumineers, Nathaniel Rateliff
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 11
Where: UK Memorial Coliseum, 201 Avenue of Champions
Tickets: $30, $15 UK students. Public tickets available through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.