Whitney impresses in show at Variety Playhouse

Photo courtesy of Secretly Canadian

On Sept. 20, Atlanta’s tattooed masses filed into Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points, shuffled to the bar for 20 ounce cans of Yuengling, Miller Lite and Coors, and eventually found their way to a comfortable spot to wait for the night’s entertainment to emerge from backstage.

The entertainment for the night was Whitney, a Chicago-based indie-folk outfit that earned extensive praise from critics with the release of their 2016 debut album “Light Upon the Lake.” The group, which is on tour in support of its sophomore album “Forever Turned Around” — released in late August — has carved a niche out of the crowded alternative landscape with a uniquely pleasant, intoxicating sound complemented by raw, sincere and uncomplicated vocals.

At first listen, Whitney’s sound does not actually stand out from the rest as being particularly distinctive. Sure, vocalist Julien Ehrlich’s voice is noteworthy for its smoothness, but the group does not really differentiate itself with its arrangements or production. In fact, just what it is that gives Whitney’s sound such a unique quality is quite difficult to pin down. In fact, it may just be that Whitney does exactly what every other indie-folk group does, they just do it better.

The group has cited Allen Toussaint and Levon Helm as inspirations, and the influence shows. Many Whitney songs would feel at home on “The Last Waltz” — the Band’s legendary live album — if it were not for Ehrlich’s soft, thoroughly un-Levon Helm-ish vocals. Whitney is certainly not the first indie-folk band to try to channel the Band, but no one has yet done it with quite the same sincerity which Whitney brings to the table. The secret may just be the dramatic difference between Ehrlich’s vocal style and Levon Helm’s signature gruff southern accent; Helm’s voice is so distinctive that imitations often feel more like caricature than homage.

Whether already a fan of the group or not, it is difficult to imagine anyone being disappointed by a Whitney concert. For those familiar with “Light Upon the Lake,” last month’s show was an opportunity to sing along to some beloved tracks. Still, for those not already acquainted with the group, the show provided a relaxed opportunity to enjoy some new music on a Friday night. In fact, while the vast majority of the attendees seemed to be fans — despite all of the critical success, Whitney has not entirely broken into the mainstream yet — many were not familiar enough with the songs on “Forever Turned Around” to sing along. Still, there was no drop in energy or audience engagement during these tracks.

Sept. 20’s show was listed to begin at 7 p.m., but by the time an opening act and sound checks were complete, and the band ambled onto the stage — clutching their own Miller Lites — it was well past 9 p.m.

The group opened with “Polly,” the penultimate track of “Light Upon the Lake.” The song begins deliberately, with soft piano and Ehrlich crooning to a past lover. For this song, the stage at Variety Playhouse was awash in blue light. Eventually, the song breaks out into a series of crescendos, smooth and intimate yet, at the same time, bold and intense. The piano is joined by a slide guitar, drums and, most striking of all, a trumpet. This building structure, and the song’s loud, almost triumphant ending give it an optimistic sound which is juxtaposed with Ehrlich’s sweet but melancholic lyrics. This juxtaposition is a common thread through Whitney’s music, and opening the show with “Polly” was an excellent way of setting the tone for the night.

The group followed this opening with “No Matter Where We Go,” a much faster-paced song which built nicely on the momentum set up by the end of “Polly.” The track, which comes in the middle of the group’s debut album, is unique among Whitney’s repertoire in that its lyrics are sung in the future tense. This gives it a much more optimistic tone than any of their other songs, and the positive energy it brought could be felt both in the audience and on stage.

After “No Matter Where We Go,” the band launched into “Giving Up,” one of the singles from the new album “Forever Turned Around.” The track begins with a slow, jazzy jam, driven by simple drums, cascading piano and light guitar playing. Quickly, Ehrlich’s vocals join the party. In this case, the laid-back sound of the music is juxtaposed with a certain anxiety in the lyrics. Ehrlich sings about waiting for the sun to come up, wondering when — or if — his lover will return to him. Ehrlich’s performance allowed the audience to feel a sense of insecure impatience while the relaxed sound kept the party going. While fewer members of the audience sung along — as with most of the tracks from the new album — there was actually a greater sense of engagement with “Giving Up” than with nearly any of the other tracks. In many ways, this was the emotional climax of the set.

Emotions may have peaked with “Giving Up,” but the set as a whole certainly did not. The energy of the audience continued to build as Whitney played hit after hit from “Light Upon the Lake,” from a foot-tapping rendition of “Golden Days” to a slow, reflective, Allen Toussaint-esque performance of the titular track.

Just as the energy felt ready to break, the band paused, and Ehrlich explained to the crowd that after the next song they would be taking a short break then returning to play a few more songs as an “encore” — it is in vogue these days for artists to rebel against the stiff, awkward tradition of leaving the stage fully expecting to return at the urging of a not-quite-satisfied audience.

The set ended with a fitting pairing of “No Woman,” easily the biggest hit off of “Light Upon the Lake” — and Whitney’s career so far — and “Valleys,” one of the better tracks off of “Forever Turned Around.” “No Woman” is a slow song driven by an interesting juxtaposition between the polished sounds of an electric slide guitar and Ehrlich’s smooth vocals, and the much rawer sounds of an acoustic guitar and, infrequently but quite prominently, loud trumpet flourishes. The song, which is already a masterpiece in recorded form, is even more beautiful live.

If there was a disappointment in Whitney’s performance on Sept. 20, it was the band’s decision not to play their version of “Southern Nights,” the 1975 classic penned and originally recorded by Allen Toussaint, though probably most famous for a 1977 recording by Glen Campbell. Whitney’s cover was included in a release of the demos from “Light Upon the Lake” and has become one of the group’s more popular tracks. While its inclusion would have improved the show, the performance does just fine without it.

Another aspect of Whitney’s performance that deserves praise is Ehrlich’s comfort interacting with the audience. The vocalist engaged well with fans throughout the set, introducing songs and often sharing little quips about various tracks. This type of interaction is obviously nothing new, but Ehrlich’s sincerity was uniquely good at putting the audience at ease and making the show feel informal and relaxed, like much of Whitney’s music.

This attentiveness to and honesty with the audience also helps to make up for what might be described as a lack of on-stage energy from the group — one should not go to a Whitney concert expecting head-banging or multiple Mick Jagger-style outfit changes.

Whitney is by far one of the best groups to come out of the crowded indie-folk scene to date, and the biggest surprise about the group’s young career is that they have not become more popular than they already are. Anybody with any interest in music at all should check them out immediately, whether by going to a show or listening to their albums.