Judah & the Lion defied expectations Saturday at the Uptown Theater. Many in the audience of about 1,700 thought of the Nashville-based musicians as stomp-and-shout folk revivalists. Others believed that Judah & the Lion was a pious Christian ensemble. A third faction considered the group to be a straightforward indie-rock band.
None of the assessments was entirely accurate.
Bolstered by a pair of multi-instrumentalists, the group exhibited commendable eclecticism and audacious ambitiousness in an intriguing 90-minute outing. Although its stage production was minimal and the venue wasn’t entirely full, Judah & the Lion exuded bravado that seemed better suited for sports arenas.
The musicians met as students at Belmont University and are touring in support of their second full-length album. Lush keyboards and a booming rhythm section made it clear that the mandolin and banjo wielded by two of the quartet’s members are red herrings. Judah & the Lion may have roots in folk and bluegrass, but it’s branched into the bombastic territory associated with groups like U2 and Queen.
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For every song like “Back’s Against the Wall” that featured an earthy interlude, there was another that resembled the sort of grandiose arena rock detested by fashion-conscious indie-rock fans. Framed by triumphant chants that resembled soccer stadium rallying cries, front man Judah Akers sang that “I used to have these big old dreams that I’d write songs that everybody would sing” on “All I Want Is You.” His dream was realized throughout the evening.
Akers taught the audience the catchy chorus of the new song “Green Eyes” in about 30 seconds, a feat that explains much of his band’s appeal. His knack for immediately ingratiating melodies is exemplified by the self-referential “Take It All Back.” A triumphant reading of the breakout hit acted as a satisfying distillation of pure elation.
Judah & the Lion’s forays into hip-hop were less successful. A wacky dance-off was set to T-Pain’s salacious “Booty Wurk (One Cheek at a Time),” an exercise that surely alarmed chaste fans. The anemic crunk of “Reputation” was capable of inducing tears of shame from party rapper Lil Jon. Akers’ engaging antics make these lesser moments tolerable. He consistently twirled and pogoed like a hyperactive third-grader during the first minute of recess.
An opening set by the genial Los Angeles based Wilderado underscored Judah & the Lion’s genre-bending approach. Where Wilderado’s standard-issue melodic rock stuck to convention, the headlining act refused to play by the rules.
Suit and Jacket, Conversations, Hold On, Kickin’ da Leaves, Stockholm, All I Want Is You, Booty Wurk (One Cheek at a Time), Reputation, Mr. Brightside, Going to Mars, Back’s Against the Wall, Our Love, Green Eyes, Rich Kids, Take It All Back, Water