As they settled into a groove Friday night at Memorial Coliseum, the five members of The Lumineers gave every indication that their polite, unhurried brand of folk-inspired pop would be the order of the evening. Then, as the band launched their biggest hit, singer/frontman Wesley Schultz asked the predominantly college-age audience in attendance to do the unthinkable.
Yep, just as the introductory riffs commenced on Ho Hey, the chirpy radio hit that essentially introduced the Denver band and its wide-eyed pop sound to the world last year, Schultz asked the crowd — and you almost hear the audible gasps — to put away their cellphones.
It wasn't some major pronouncement or demand. Neither was the performance of Ho Hey, for that matter, which was dispensed with zero fanfare, four songs into the 75 minute show. Still, the request had a ricochet effect. A few fans cheered. Some booed briefly. Most simply complied. Apparently powering down from social electronica for just over an hour wasn't much of a hardship.
The request wasn't the only surprise. While guitarist Schultz was the band's focal point during all of the 17 songs tackled Friday night, he wasn't the catalyst that sparked The Lumineers' craftier moments. Neither was cellist Neyla Pekarek, a co-founding member with a seemingly distinctive musical contribution to make. Sadly, her playing was lost in an uneven sound mix for much of the evening.
No, the MVP of this show was pianist Stelth Ulvang, whose playing propelled Sawmill Joe's Ain't Nobody's Problem and a curiously dark hoedown version of Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. Ulvang proved to be keenly resourceful by switching to mandolin for the hearty hootenanny flavor of Charlie Boy and accordion during a two-song stretch (Darlene and Elouise) that had him playing in the lower sections on each side of the coliseum while the rest of the band joined the audience on the venue's floor.
Drummer Jeremiah Fraites was a close runner-up with a wildly intuitive and far-reaching sound, through spacious rhythms hammered out on a traditional kit and rustic beats played on a kick drum at the foot of the stage.
It was all as good-natured as could be, even though the majority of the songs reflected fairly pat arrangements that seldom strayed from the lean and brief versions on the band's self-titled debut album. One fine exception was Stubborn Love. Next to Ho Hey, this was The Lumineers' biggest hit. But it was also one the few tunes that seriously opened up to involve the audience, especially during an ensuing sing-a-long. That might seem like a conventional stage ploy. But for a show steeped in material and performances that often seemed shy and safe, Stubborn Love was a breakthrough.
Denver folk stylist Nathaniel Rateliff opened the evening with a somewhat distant-sounding set that operated from more dissonant sources than the evening's headliners. Several songs coalesced into anthemic, Avett Brothers-style grooves at times, which quickly won audience approval. Mostly, though, one was left thinking that a more intimate listening environment might have been a better setting for Rateliff's cloudy, quirky tunes.