As April 12 approached and Portland’s rain refused to relent, I have to admit, I almost sold off my ticket to Whitney’s sold out show. It’s not that I dislike the band at all – far from it. In fact, I’ve been listening to guitarist Max Kakacek since his Smith Westerns debut and been familiar with the former Unknown Mortal Orchestra member (and Portland native) Julien Ehrlich for years. No, my reasoning for almost not going was precisely because I worried Whitney would not meet the expectation I have come to have for these artists, a bar which has remained high since their summer 2016 debut album “Light Upon the Lake.” I was worried about the venue, Revolution Hall, which had only opened a little over a year beforehand, and which I knew next to nothing about. Most of all, I worried that I was simply not in the mood for the folky sounds of summer which Whitney has come to evoke for me, since finals loomed around the corner and the dark Portland winter showed no signs of lifting.
I’m glad to say I was completely wrong. Whitney’s performance stands out as one of the most memorable shows I have seen in Portland thus far. Upon arrival at the venue, we thought we had arrived at the wrong place, as it turns out Revolution Hall is a repurposed high school. We sat up in the balcony next to a set of reserved seats labelled “Julien Family”: it turned out that Ehrlich’s entire family had come to see his first show in Portland because of the overwhelming success of Whitney over the past year, and what’s more, they had been seated all around us. As Whitney walked onstage after a melodic set by Julie Byrne, Ehrlich beamed, and his family began loudly cheering all around us. Those in the pit below were yelling at Ehrlich specifically, as it turns out that even Ehrlich’s high school classmates had showed up to cheer him on. In fact, after playing “No Matter Where We Go,” Ehrlich jumped to the edge of the stage to embrace his high school football teammate. Needless to say, the energy and the positivity of the show was astounding as the band played off of its enthusiastic audience.
Whitney’s performance was incredible: Kakacek’s guitar work has only improved since his tenure with Smith Westerns, and it was a pleasure to hear the assorted horns and pianos of Whitney in songs like “The Falls” and “No Woman.” Every member of the band was glowing with happiness, feeding off not just their audience but their fellow band members as well. When they weren’t playing, they were joking or dancing with one another; it’s clear that Whitney is not just a band of musicians, but a band of steadfast friends as well. After each song, an overwhelmed Ehrlich would thank his friends and family, who would loudly cheer their approval. Amazingly enough, his grandmother, who was seated directly in front of us, cheered most loudly of all. Ehrlich made sure the audience gave her a round of applause for being there.
Ehrlich wasn’t tired out from chatting with the crowd, however. His drumming form and vocal delivery were flawless: his ability to maintain a falsetto, eyes closed, without missing a beat was incredible to watch. Not only did Whitney play the entirety of “Light Upon the Lake,” but they also debuted some new tracks and covers, with surprisingly little pause in-between to let Ehrlich rest. I was left marvelling at how Ehrlich could possibly maintain his vocals for so long without a break, yet his grin had only grown wider by the end of the night, and his arms showed no signs of fatigue. Maybe it was the smaller size of the venue, or maybe it was the sold out crowd, but the resounding applause Whitney were met with as they exited the stage was staggering.
For those who are upset that Whitney’s music catalogue is so tantalizingly small (just one album and two singles), you’ll be pleased to hear that the band announced their plans to live in a cabin on the slopes of Mount Hood this summer in order to work on recording their sophomore album. For a band with such a unique sound (they hearken back to classic artists such as the Band or Townes Van Zandt without ever feeling like copies of either artist), I’m excited to hear how they explore their creative repertoire further this summer.
One thing which I adamantly believe is a hallmark of great live music is an artist’s ability to make their audience feel a certain emotion, whether happy or sad. To this effect, I can’t say I’ve ever walked into a show with such a different set of emotions from when I walked out. While the exceptionally long and rainy Portland winter, coupled with the stress of school, had left me yearning for summer, I walked out of this show with a smile on my face as large as Ehrlich’s and a happier state of mind than I’d felt in a long time. Seeing a newly successful band so genuinely pleased to return to its roots and give back to its longest fans will remain one of the happiest concert experiences I have had to date.