Opening night at Britt: The Fray lights up the hillside
Mega-selling popsters The Fray inaugurated the refurbished Britt hillside in Jacksonville as the Britt Festivals kicked off its 2014 season Monday night. The Denver-based band played a set of piano-driven power pop to a capacity crowd of enthusiastic fans.
For its mostly under 30-something followers, the band needs no introduction. It was formed in 2002 by school buddies Isaac Slade and Joe King and pulled off the unlikely feat of selling zillions of copies of their first album, 2005's "How to Save a Life." "Over My Head (Cable Car)" was a top 10 hit in the States, and the band's second single, "How to Save a Life," was a world-wide hit. Its latest album, "Helios," was released in February.
Slade, the Fray's lead singer and pianist, his head shaved, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt on a cold night, began an energetic set with "Closer to Me" ("I take two steps forward and don't look back / I bare my soul just to cover my tracks") followed by the cryptic "Heartbeat," which segued into "You Found Me," for which he moved to pounding chords on a baby grand piano.
Slade sings highly emotional lyrics in a rough baritone, sometimes breaking into falsetto, ranging from ballads with Christian messages to aggressively rocking numbers about relationships or social issues.
Oh Honey, a relatively new indie folk duo, opened the evening with feel-good harmonies and catchy tunes with a sunny sound that's nothing like the harder rock and punk stuff coming out of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where they live. Think of Mitchy Collins (formerly of The Kin and Outasight) and pixie-ish Danielle Bouchard, who make up Oh Honey, as a 21st century Sonny and Cher.
Bouchard is a spacey-sounding singer who says she grew up listing to Stevie Nicks, her mom's favorite singer. Collins grew up on Springsteen and says he's a fan of storytellers like The Boss and Ryan Adams.
The duo's lyrics were not catchable for the most part, but the songs had an unmistakably cheery vibe. Their last song was their best, a relentlessly happy number called "Be OK."
The Seattle-based trio Barcelona came on after Oh Honey's short set and played loud, tight, radio-friendly numbers like "Sick" ("I need you to fix me up") and the synth-heavy "Lose Control," about the problems of connecting in the city.
Formed in 2005, the band sports influences from Coldplay to Death Cab for Cutie. Their first album was independently released in 2007, but they later signed with Universal Records, only to leave the label in 2010. Their song "Slipping Away" was featured in the third episode of the USA Network TV series "Graceland."
You'll see some major changes at Britt even before the music starts. A new sidewalk leads from the bottom of the hill on 1st Street up to the grounds, the Britt gardens have been spruced up, and the new Table Rock Stage is a concrete bandstand with a rustic roof supported by massive beams and framed by tall trees just below the hospitality deck. There are new restrooms and sidewalks. At least for this night, a steel-mesh fence separated band from audience.
As The Fray moved into a rousing "All at Once," Slade, cordless mike in hand, leaped into the audience and bounded up the aisle to the top of the reserved section, where he sang standing on the seat backs as several hundred cell phones shot photos and video. He climbed atop the sound booth to rhetorically ask the people in lawn seating how they were doing before jogging back down the hill and onto the stage to dance atop the piano.
The next song, "Hurricane," from the new album, dialed it way down, with Slade back at the piano and the band's elaborate lights throwing crawling patterns around a moody stage. The band's piano-heavy sound might make you think of a band like Coldplay, but Slade says they were influenced more by such groups as The Wallflowers and Counting Crows.
"Rainy Zurich" found Slade's distinctive voice — you either like it or you don't — rising in a hoarse whine above his piano, and a bit of a sing-along thing happened as "Look After You" segued into "Keep On Wanting."
Although most of their current material no longer has the overtly religious content of some of the band's early songs, Slade and his mates sang nice harmonies on the old spiritual about climbing higher mountains trying to get home, which became an a cappella tour de force with the audience clapping along. They were rocking out to "Hold My Hand" when a reviewer was forced to leave before turning into a pumpkin.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.