The Head and the Heart sing for heavy hearts at ACL taping

The Head and the Heart tape an episode of “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live on Monday, May 22, 2017. Scott Newton/Courtesy of KLRU-TV and Austin City Limits

Monday evening coming down at ACL Live found a couple thousand music fans in various states of sorrow. Locally, friends and followers of Austin musicians Jimmy LaFave and George Reiff were mourning their deaths from cancer on Sunday night. And not long before the show started came the news of the tragic deaths of concertgoers in England at an Ariana Grande show.

That was a tough spot for the Head and the Heart, a Seattle indie-folk band in town to tape an “Austin City Limits” episode for the second time. But the naturally uplifting nature of their music served the situation well. Not a band given to artifice or gimmickry, the Head and the Heart won over the crowd with the stuff that counts: quality songs and strong musicianship.

One wouldn’t have expected them to relate to the loss of the two local musicians, who they’d never had a chance to meet. Yet that feeling was in fact very much on their minds as well: The death of renowned Seattle singer Chris Cornell last week, while on tour with his band Soundgarden, clearly affected them, and they offered up a touching tribute in the middle of the show.

Singer-guitarist Matt Gervais — added to the lineup last year when founding member Josiah Johnson went on an extended hiatus — recalled meeting Cornell when he was just 12 years old. Gervais and his friends were playing music in a garage when Cornell happened to pass by. They cranked it up loud and ripped out Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days,” turning Cornell’s head. He popped in with a smile and advised, “You guys are playing it a little fast.”

Gervais’ bandmates then launched into a gorgeous rendition of “Hunger Strike,” from the 1991 Temple of the Dog collaborative album between members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Just as that song featured Cornell and Eddie Vedder trading verses, Gervais and the Head and the Heart’s frontman, Jonathan Russell, shared the lead vocal duties on this rendition, with additional vocals by Gervais’ wife, fiddler Charity Rose Thielen. Many of the band’s fans knew the song immediately and sang along. It was a special moment on a night that called for one.

The rest of the performance put the spotlight on the group’s 2016 album “Signs of Light,” though they also somewhat surprisingly reached back to play more than half of the songs on their 2011 self-titled debut. Three more tracks came from 2013’s “Let’s Be Still,” including the single “Shake,” a highlight near the end of the main set.

Much of the Head and the Heart’s magic depends on the vocal blend between Russell, Gervais and Thielen, who frequently sing in three-part harmony. Keyboardist Kenny Henley (who mostly played a real upright piano, out front at stage left, rather than electronic keyboards) and bassist Chris Zasche are key contributors as well, having been with the band since the start. The group’s not-so-secret weapon is Tyler Williams, a powerful and dynamic drummer who charismatically propels his band members’ tempos and spirits from his perch on the drum riser behind them.

The Head and the Heart will return to town this fall for both weekends of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which they last played in 2014.

RELATED: Watch Jimmy LaFave’s Austin City Limits episode from 1996

Set list:
1. All We Ever Knew
2. City of Angels
3. Ghosts
4. Rhythm and Blues
5. Another Story
6. Let’s Be Still
7. Lost in My Mind
8. Winter Song
9. Hunger Strike
10. Oh My Dear
11. I Don’t Mind
12. Sounds Like Hallelujah
13. Shake
14. Down in the Valley
Encore:
15. Library Magic
16. Rivers and Roads

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