Piano-rock transcends expectation at the Orpheum

A review of OneRepublic and Augustana at the Orpheum Theatre on December 4

, Staff

I used to think the appearance of piano rock bands like Coldplay, The Fray, Maroon 5 on the scene eerily close to one another seemed nothing but another chart-topping pop trend. I saw Augustana a few years back at the Crazy Donkey on Long Island, and I wasn’t all that impressed – their track "Boston" was just gaining momentum, and onstage the new band seemed to have those freshman self-esteem issues. One Republic had the simply inescapable hit "Apologize", boosted to record-breaking fame by Timbaland, but seemingly not much more than that.

Perhaps the sole reason my expectations were exceeded so easily was that they were initially so low. Most credit indubitably goes to the bands. Augustana’s revamped lineup (Josiah Rosen has left the band) produced a staggering difference, though the band took a few songs to heat up. They showed signs of improvement from the start, opening with the melodic country tune "Dust". Front-man Dan Layus clearly had warmed to being onstage, enthusiastically waving bassist Jared Palomar over to share his mic. Layus changed a lyric in "Meet You There" as a nod to the headliners, singing, "Just put on One Republic, and dance with me." As he greeted the crowd, he tried a failed call and response. "Okay," he relented with a smile, "we’ll try that later".

Next was a track from their debut album, "Stars and Boulevards". Bearded and bespectacled keyboardist John Vincent jammed out vigorously behind his piano, proving himself a worthy replacement for Layus, who used to spend much of his stage time sitting at the keys. He did some of that at this show, too. He practically soloed "Fire", during which the presence of One Republic guitarist Drew Brown on the glockenspiel seemed a pleasant surprise to the entire band. "I Still Ain’t Over You" followed. Layus strapped on a harmonica while Palomar provided pitch-perfect harmony for "Twenty Years". The crowd showed sufficient approval to warrant a slight bow from Layus.

Chris Sachtleben joined in on guitar with Layus and Vincent for an acoustic take on their new single, "Sweet and Low". The whole group stood around an old radio style microphone to croon together, when for no reason at all a large man in dark glasses, a backwards cap, and a leather jacket walked center stage. The man, who we would learn was named Shrek, removed his coat and it became clear he wasn’t wearing any pants. He joined the circle of musicians, gyrating his hips and snapping his fingers as they struggled through laughter to finish the really wonderful rendition. "You know," Layus said after raucous applause followed Shrek offstage, "sometimes on the last night of a tour, some weird shit goes on".

With no introduction really necessary, Layus sat down at his piano and launched into the now mega-popular "Boston". By then the crowd was sold on Augustana, and their cheers gave way to an unabashed sing-along. Layus relinquished the vocal duties for the first chorus over to the Boston audience, more than happy to give the song to the namesake crowd. The thunderous appreciation they displayed encouraged Layus to riff on the end, drawing it out and smiling knowingly to his band mates. "We love Boston," he said, "You all have been real nice to us." He wished everyone happy holidays and a happy new year before prefacing their last song. "It’s very fun for us if you put your hands together like this, your feet on the ground like this, and stand up. You don’t have to", he assured, but the crowd was happy to become standing-room only.

They ended their set on a superb high note by covering Big Joe Williams’ "Baby Please Don’t Go". Layus had the crowd eating out of his palm. Claps continued throughout the jam, and this time the call and response was loud and energetic. Layus changed a lyric to, "If we don’t go back to Boston, it’ll hurt my soul. That town is bad". He meant ‘bad’ in a good way, and the Bostonian audience appreciated it. He brought the music down with a softening ‘shhh’ and practically spoke the lyrics from his knees. The end of the set felt totally improvised, with Layus visibly signaling and telling the band members how to follow his lead. He even mirrored the opening number, waving Sachtleben over to show his screaming skills on the final call and response wailing.

Augustana set a perfect stage for One Republic. The crowd was suitably amped as the stage was all but cleared. The chandelier that was hung above the stage remained, but most of the space was cleared out to make room for One Republic leader Ryan Tedder’s piano and four plain, red floor lamps. These brightened as the instruments they stood next to began being played, and the ambiance was brilliantly fitting. "Mercy" opened the set as Tedder entered singing, greeted by an eruption from the audience. No time was wasted before he moved to the piano to begin "Goodbye Apathy", during which Brown joined Eddie Fisher on the single drum-set.

"Well, Boston," Tedder addressed the crowd, "beautiful, beautiful Boston. We love this town. I’m a huge history buff, and walking around I can feel the history. Thanks for coming out on this cold as hell night". The thanked were clearly more than willing to face the chill, and to finish "Stop and Stare" at Tedder’s request. As Brent Kutzle put down his bass for his cello, Tedder claimed "Craigslist and various other reputable websites voted Brent ‘sexiest cello player of the year’". Validity of this statement not withstanding, his assertion that "this next song wouldn’t be possible without his cello" was incontrovertible. "All Fall Down" has a killer cello solo, and Kutzle brings a new level of excellence to this group. His furious solo leading into the equally powered "Tyrant" deserved its applause. Tedder got so into the song he lost his paino-stool and knelt, practically praying to the keys as he turned his face upward to belt the lyrics.

For a marvelous cover of Gnarls Barkley’s smash "Crazy", Tedder left the stage to stand on a mournfully empty seat in the twelfth row. Their next song was off their upcoming record to be released next year. Calling the album a definite ‘evolution’, Tedder warned, "We don’t even know if this is the final version of this song". If "All The Right Moves" sounds on the album like it did that night, it’s sure to be another hit. After thanking the crowd for "being our guinea pigs", they played "Say (All I Need)".

Band friend Jeremy McCoy took over bass duties for a while so Kutzle could shine on the cello. He did so for "Won’t Stop" and the pursuant masterful solo. That solo was a humble intro to the blockbuster hit "Apologize", a song that set a record for radio airplay, which was only broken by Leona Lewis’ "Bleeding Love", a track Tedder wrote himself. This is the song that made this group, with a tip-of-the-hat to Timbaland, yet the band rightfully gave it no special attention. They didn’t have to make a big deal about it; the crowd was there to do it for them. Every digital camera in the theater was set to video mode for that one.

As Tedder dedicated the next song to "all you Bostoners", he sang a few bars of The Beatles’ "Come Together", before leaving that song for his own "Someone To Save You". He got the crowd waving their arms in unison before closing the main set. The encore began with Fisher giving a stick-shattering drum solo. Then One Republic reentered. Then Augustana returned to the stage and the cheers rang even louder. One Republic stayed on the instruments while the Augustana members provided backup vocals and shook and banged hand percussion instruments. It was a positively stellar cover of Buffalo Springfield’s "For What It’s Worth". The bands shared the stage like true friends and musicians, singing with each other and smiling. At one point, after tossing his guitar high into the air for a roadie to catch, Tedder jammed on the same piano as Vincent, singing while pressed up against the Augustana-ian’s back.

After thanking the other band, Tedder was left alone on stage. He bantered with a female audience member who gave him her phone number, recognizing the area code from his hometown of Tulsa. He displayed his area code knowledge by listing a few, including 508 for Boston, to much cheering. "I can feel my voice fading, but we’re gonna power through a few more." As he and Kutzle played a beautiful version of "Come Home", his failing voice was evident, but as with the rest of the set, he still managed to sound perfectly solid. "Ya know," he said after the applause, "9 out of 10 times I get a chord wrong in that song. Tonight, the wrong chord was G-Major". While it’s doubtful anyone noticed, Tedder was confident that "some kid from Berklee is going ‘oh my god, that was the wrong chord’.". Not only could he get the crowd singing and screaming, but laughing as well. The night ended with "All We Are", dedicated to Laura Conrad and Will Ferrell.

Both bands proved they are more than radio-ready-pop stars. These guys have some raw stage talent. Augustana has grown considerably as a band, and this new lineup is a perfect fit. Layus is free to be the enthralling front-man now that he sticks to mostly playing guitar live. His ability and willingness to improvise are great assets. The rest of the band backs him up with the ease of lifelong friends, and it should be fun to see them evolve over time. One Republic could easily have let their breakout stardom lead to one-hit-wonderdom, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Tedder makes a perfect front-man; he banters and sings to the entire crowd, playing the stage just like an instrument. Not everyone is going to appreciate their CDs; some scenesters just don’t cross-pollinate. Their live performance, however, transcends any genre lines. Good is good, simple as that. As Tedder said before they left, "We’ll be back here in 2009 with a brand new album, new songs; we’re all gonna get plastic surgery so we’ll have new bodies; we wanna get a spin-off of ‘The Hills’". Jokes aside, when either of these groups do return to Boston, don’t let their teen television melodrama soundtrack acceptability totally turn you off. If you do, you’re liable to cheat yourself out of a couple of emerging talents with solid live shows.

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