The Lone Bellow was literally in the middle of a stunning performance at the Bluebird Theater in Denver on the first day of December, gripping an audience in the cramped but energized room with tunes that went from exuberant to emotional in a matter of minutes.
Then one lone bellow filled the room.
Zach Williams, the group's animated frontman, showman and funnyman, acoustic guitarist and principal songwriter, already had the rowdy Sunday crowd on his side. Like a conductor enthusiastically pacing his orchestra, Williams led the troops through an invigorating version of "Bleeding Out" with the infectious singalong chorus ("bop-ba-da, bop-ba-da, bop-ba-da, bop-ba-da").
Afterward, figuring this was a good time for everyone to catch their breath while actually appreciating the effects of the Mile High altitude, Williams graciously gave kudos to his deserving Brooklyn-based bandmates.
Mini-portraits were provided, starting with guitarist Brian Elmquist, a former star football player who also was in a barbershop quartet (and "his mama's choir, even though he didn't want to," Williams interjected) while becoming the pride of Sandersville, Georgia. (Brian Elmquist, left, with Zach Williams.)
The stories were told in such an entertaining way that Williams, thoroughly enjoying himself, didn't want to stop. He went on to call touring member Brian Griffin a hard-working American man who is "hard to find, especially when they're single, ladies," and one of the best drummers in New York City.
"I just got to keep this going now. It's gotta get better and better with each ... better," he said before getting interrupted by a crude sound from the main floor that was equal parts guffaw and yowl.
"Who's laugh?" Williams playfully interrogated with a grin, while Kanene Pipkin, the Lone Bella Donna in the group of transplanted Southerners, peered into the audience for the guilty party.
"There was either a goat ... there's either a heifer in heat," Williams continued, until he was drowned out by the moans and groans from spectators who seemed more amused than mortified as they watched the smooth talker suddenly trying to dig himself out of a very deep hole.
Feigning incredulity because someone would take umbrage with his caustic comment, Williams went on the defensive while thinking he was educating the city folk just a few miles from where the National Western Stock Show is held every year.
"That's a type of cow ... I'm just saying animals are welcome," he rationalized, perhaps not realizing that Denver still is sometimes sarcastically called a dusty old cowtown.
Ever persistent, Williams refused to change the subject before his announcement of another honorary member, the touring bass guitarist from Fredericksburg, Virginia, who also played mandolin and banjo on the record.
"Speaking of heifers, he's pulled a baby cow outside of a heifer's womb and saved its life," Williams said of Jason Pipkin, Kanene's husband. "He's also won several spelling bees.
"Now let's make ... set the record straight. I called no one a heifer. I was saying the sound of a heifer giving birth sometimes sounds like that beautiful, beautiful laugh."
If there were more aisles in the jam-packed venue, everybody would have been rolling in them when the bellows rang out more frequently and could be heard from the bar at the opposite end of the stage.
"Awesome," Williams said, speaking in the direction of the person he basically labeled a laughing-stock. "I can't tell if they're doing it on purpose now or if it's like a real thing."
"It's not on purpose!" the woman replied, still laughing.
"It's not? It's definitely not on purpose," Williams announced. "She's actually crying over here. Tears flowing. Yes."
His transition back to group introductions turned to Kanene Pipkin (right), the mandolin player, William & Mary alumna and high school homecoming queen then known as Kanene Donehey, who attended Fredericksburg Christian High School in Virginia.
"Speaking of tears flowing, this poor woman has to spend her whole life in rental vans with all of us boys. She's a French culinary chef, fluent in Mandarin, spent five years in Beijing. She's also an incredible singer, songwriter, bandmate, friend, she helps me raise my little, tiny children. Yes, a very sweet human being. And give it up for the heifer laughing over there ..."
After another brief explanation ("Listen, things got a little too serious during our sad songs"), the seven-minute soliloquy ended by honoring a request (even though it already was on the set list) for John Prine's "Angel of Montgomery" from somebody who "yelled it out earlier, so I figured we better sing it," Williams joked. "Because Lord knows people from Colorado do whatever the hell they want. I don't want to end up dead on top of some mountain."
On that note, the tears of joy and sorrow resumed flowing. The formidable roots trio that's more Head and the Heart than Lumineers, capping an incredible first year since the launch of their self-titled debut album in January, put the sold-out and ultimately supportive house through the emotional wringer for 90 minutes. All was forgiven.
Only the ravishing sounds and gloriously meshed three-part harmonies from the front of the stage could surpass the frightful yelp emanating down below The Lone Bellow.
All but two of the stellar Charlie Peacock-produced album's 11 songs were on the set list, including four in a row to open the show. Quickly featured were Kanene Pipkin's lovely vocals on a "song about marital strife" -- the exquisite "You Don't Love Me Like You Used To"-- and Elmquist's jangling guitar intro to "Green Eyes And A Heart Of Gold," a foot-stomper with a feverish pitch that deserves to be heard inside dance halls and karaoke bars across the nation.
Elmquist, a physically imposing figure who earned Class AA all-state high school honors for the Washington County Golden Hawks and signed to play guard at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he met Williams, seems capable of wringing the neck of his guitar during frantic fits of fantastic fury. He followed up "Green Eyes," which he cowrote with Williams, with his new song, "Georgia Will," a rockabilly raveup that should be an instant hit, then showed his gentler side as the three huddled around a mic and his acoustic guitar for "Watch Over Us."
With the bell cowboys and cowgirls staying respectfully hush-hush, the "quiet" portion of the show concluded with "Two Sides of Lonely" and "Tree to Grow," a powerful number written by Williams that starts slowly, then builds to a stirring climax. It brought tears to the lead singer's eyes as he wailed, "It gets harder and harder / But my love is older than my soul."
Williams, a native of Acworth, Georgia, whose wife Stacy needed months of recovery at the Shepard Center in Atlanta from a near-catastrophic horseback riding accident in 2005, obviously knows how to balance the heavy with the light throughout an album and a concert.
He brought members of opening act Ivan and Alyosha (misspelled on the marquee) back for the encores, starting with a loose version of "Marshmallow World." The Christmas song also was on the set list, but Williams, saying, "We're gonna wing it," still struggled with the words. "The world's a snowball, not a rainbow," he lamented afterward, giving everyone another reason to smile.
Most of the entire company gathered around Williams to close more reverently with another album highlight, "Teach Me to Know." Cowritten with Caleb Clardy, the friend who got Williams to go from journal writer to songwriter, it was an amped-up rendition of the recorded one, and the crowd jumped in for the "carried away" chorus.
Now Williams' comedic skills might not be quite as sharp as his touching lyrics and melodies. But even though he and his wife eventually settled in a borough where the band developed its sound, the worship leader over the years with Trinity Grace Church in the Park Slope neighborhood is living proof that you can't take the country boy out of the city slicker.
The name of the band, initially known as Zach Williams and the Bellow, even comes from a sound he heard one summer night at his grandparents' house in rural Georgia, according to a story that appeared in USA Today.
Only that time, it was made by a bull, not a heifer in heat. That haunting moan from such a pastoral setting obviously stayed with him.
So speaking of bellows ... Who knows if it was responsible for Williams' animal magnetism. But as the group wraps up 2013 in Los Angeles tonight (December 12) with the second of two sold-out shows before resuming again in January with mostly Midwest dates, followed by a Cayamo cruise, then a jaunt to jolly old England, one thing's for sure.
On a comfortably comforting December night in Denver when Thanksgiving leftovers gave way to Christmas wish lists, the Lone Bellow produced a joyful noise that continues to reverberate beyond the Rockies.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of the Lone Bellow at the Bluebird Theater in Denver.