A Year's Worth of Cheers (And a Few Jeers) for the Lumineers

A Year's Worth of Cheers (And a Few Jeers) for the Lumineers
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The invitations were sent out months ago. Did you RSVP?

While a Denver bash to celebrate a phenomenal, breakout year was thrown by a most promising host, some of us waited until the final day of 2012 to get the party started. In the year of the Lumineers, did we miss anything?

With a Saturday Night Live appearance (January 19) and the Grammy Awards (February 10, up for Best New Artist and Best Americana Album) looming on the Lumineers' itinerary, expectations are already high for 2013. But in a town where overzealous, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately fans expect their beloved Broncos to win the Super Bowl, failing to reach that goal would undoubtedly leave an emotional hangover lasting until next season. So the pressure to perform -- whether you're an athlete or entertainer -- can be unbearable, particularly if you're expected to go all the way.

If those grand schemes and dreams entered this core trio's collective mind last April, hopefully someone was wise enough to snap them out of it. Only eight months after the release of their self-titled debut album -- bolstered by one simple but wildly popular song -- the Lumineers had to be asking themselves, "How did we get here?"

The New Year's Eve concert at the Ogden Theatre in Denver was either a powerfully true testament to the Lumineers' incredible rise through the roots ranks or a false read encouraged by an alcohol-fueled crowd that smelled like team spirit and had the whole next day off to recover after acting like the life of the party. Denver denizens love to play favorites as long as their heroes reach the Promised Land.

This was the last chance in 2012 to convince any doubting Thomases who weren't sold on an album that has spent 39 weeks on the Billboard 200 list, reaching its peak (No. 9) this week. The more vicious detractors who thought the Lumineers were an Americana-lite, Average White Band without any musical integrity and fronted by two guys in goofy hats probably didn't bother to show up anyway. Why spoil the party?

So, beginning with the crowd boisterously singing along to a lengthy intro of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," this night was a full-on lovefest. It didn't hurt to have the home-field advantage, even if only one of the group's members -- Neyla Pekarek, a former nanny who fortunately was the first to answer a Craigslist ad seeking a cellist -- is actually from Denver. The band has been based in the Mile High City since the co-founders -- guitarist Wesley Schultz (left) and drummer Jeremiah Fraites -- relocated from New York a few years ago.

That fact didn't dissuade the Mile High maniacs who, in jump-on-the-bandwagon fashion, now dearly deem the group "one of their own." They treated them that way throughout a show that sold out shortly after tickets went on sale in August, meriting another date to be scheduled for the preceding night.

The Lumineers returned the party favors by including: spirited -- if predictable -- renditions of all 11 selections from the album; Schultz's countdown to the midnight hour, the inevitable popping of the cork and champagne spray; two confetti blasts that prevailed like a Colorado blizzard; then a four-song encore that eventually utilized the talents of warmup acts Paper Bird and Shovels & Rope.

The lanky Schultz, a dead ringer for a young Daryl Hall (if only he had a little bit of blue-eyed soul), is blessed with leading-man looks, boyish charm, quiet intensity and a serviceable voice. Apparently, that's more than enough to keep the audience in the palm of his guitar-playing hands.

The first-half highlight was his shout-out to another songwriter, Denver bro "Sawmill Joe" Cheves, whose "Ain't Nobody's Problem" was covered in rousing fashion. But fervent fans apparently decided to take a break and hush up during Schultz's uninspired take on "Subterranean Homesick Blues," which was in dire need of Dylan's cue cards for anyone under 50. Otherwise, as the bewitching hour approached, Schultz stuck to the tried and true material he and Fraites wrote for the album.

Since songs such as "Submarine," "Classy Girls" and "Flowers in Your Hair," varied little from the album's sub-3-minute versions, there was no reason to make the pied pipers wait any longer for the Lumineers' platinum-selling hit.

Stopping mid-song to urge everyone to "put away those cameras and iPhones" and be in the moment, Schultz broke out "Ho Hey" barely 20 minutes into a 90-minute set that was drawn out by a few extended pauses. Musicians -- including an animated, barefooted Stelth Ulvang (keyboards, mandolin) and bassist Ben Wahamaki -- occasionally switched positions or instruments as Fraites proved he's more than a kick drummer in suspenders and Pekarek went electric on the bass.

In a lineup that also changed frequently, from solo to as many as six, Schultz remained front and center throughout. Strumming an acoustic guitar at 4 minutes till midnight, he calmly stated, "This is the last song you'll hear in the year 2012."

The longest and most complex cut on the album, "Big Parade" was an intriguing but curious choice on which to enter the New Year, even with its crowd-pleasing "Oh my my, oh hey hey" chorus.

And the beauty queens, beauty queens with the white gloves /
All sick from the night club, they wave with pageantry, pageantry

Schultz delivered those lyrics, then abruptly stopped as the crew brought out champagne and the roaring crowd whipped itself into a frenzy while waiting for their inner clock to strike 12. The celebration lasted only 30 seconds, but the festive mood was heightened before Schultz, who apparently prefers Bud over bubbly, casually picked up where he left off. (Schultz, above, with Pekarek.)

Oh my my, oh hey hey /
Here it comes, the big parade /
Marching bands and barricades /
Make way, for the big parade

Even though classy girls don't kiss in bars, this occasion provided an excuse to make an exception to the Lumineers' rule. Anyone not reveling in the now deserved a night on the couch with Ryan Seacrest.

Members of the Lumineers watch the confetti fall, from left: Neyla Pekarek,
Stelth Ulvang, Jeremiah Fraites, Wesley Schultz and Ben Wahamaki.

By the time the confetti supply was exhausted, there were a few more riveting moments left to experience. Seeing Pekarek, who does bring a classy touch behind the cello, emerge from the background at stage right to share the mic with Schultz on a lovely duet was a sheer delight. Even though the frontman said their "brand new song" still "doesn't have a name yet" (keyword: Falling), they've been performing it live for months. Writer's block already?

Fraites (left, with Pekarek) played a portable xylophone held by a beaming Pekarek on "Flapper Girl," then during the encore they took it out into the crowd. Schultz and the rest of the band (including Ulvang on accordion and Wahamaki on acoustic guitar from each side of the balcony) shushed the rowdies before singing a stripped-down "Darlene."

The grand finale featured appearances by Paper Bird and Shovels & Rope -- each with Denver connections -- for rough and raucous covers of The Band's "The Weight" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Long As I Can See the Light."

Cary Ann Hearst, the Southern half of Shovels & Rope with husband Michael Trent (who grew up in Denver and attended Faith Christian High School) seemed to particularly enjoy herself. (Hearst and Trent, below, with the Lumineers.)

Drinking who knows what from a plastic cup and wearing a coonskin cap and a T-shirt of The Films (Trent's previous group), she shined while taking turns on lead vocals with Paper Bird's Sarah Anderson (who scribbled the lyrics on her hand), Schultz and Pekarek. Hugs and high-fives followed, then a chorus line of 14 bowed out, taking 2012 with them.

Resting up through most of January 2013, the Lumineers might consider reflecting on their year full of good cheer. Because there's an inevitable question awaiting them in February: What will they do for an encore?

Americana's latest darlings received high praise and national media attention, sharing USA Today's Best Debut honors with Alabama Shakes and Kendrick Lamar. Yet they still need to face the music: Some backlashing critics continue to wonder what the fuss is all about.

Does this trending band have potential staying power or will it forever be remembered for one catchy tune filled with easy-to-remember lyrics ("I belong with you, you belong with me") and an infectious melody?

Rolling Stone called "Ho Hey" a "stomping acoustic sing-along" and, according to Entertainment Weekly, it was the 10th-best single of the year. But that's the same publication that ranked Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" No. 1. Not exactly the company a serious band seeking legitimacy in this realm of authenticity wants to keep.

While the knowledgeable online community at No Depression ranked The Lumineers No. 26 among its top 50 favorite albums of 2012, it was left off the top 10 lists of 30 of the 31 featured contributors (including mine) who participated in an informal critics poll for the website. For comparison's sake, O' Be Joyful by Shovels & Rope, the dynamic duo whose rollicking 45 minutes onstage preceding their Dualtone label-mates rose above the din offstage, finished sixth on the community list and made three of the critics' top 10 (also including mine).

Maybe judgment was affected by a piece titled "Lumineers Underwhelm; Gen Y Reaches New Rhythmic Low" written by another ND reviewer. Attending a Lumineers concert last May in Houston, William Michael Smith asked, perhaps rhetorically, "Why are all these people here?"

Obviously, not everyone is willing to join the party line. Before seeing a band like this, though, it doesn't hurt to have reservations.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more on the Lumineers, Shovels & Rope and Paper Bird at the Ogden Theatre in Denver.

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