Artists elevate words, tones and energy to create experiences. Friday night at the Old Rock House, the Oh Hellos did just that by emptying the space of distraction before filling it with their sound and message.
The band's reward for making St. Louis a regular tour stop was a space full of engaged fans who moved with the band's driving, full, harmonic sounds, but stilled for the mellow moments that accentuate so many of the group's numbers.
The show began with the band entering stage left to "The Ecstacy of Gold" -- familiar from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. After a quick introduction and a line about getting ready to "folk and roll," the band launched into "The Valley," the opening track of Through the Deep, Dark Valley.
Siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath form the core of the band, but an entourage of nine musicians came together for the Dear Wormwood Tour. With two sets of drums and seven stringed instruments, the Oh Hellos produce a robust sound, and never hold back when the songs call for it all.
Just as many of the band's numbers build with rhythmic harmonies before dropping off to a faint, singular, still voice, the show repetitively built up to pulsating highs followed by reflective, timeless interludes. Tyler Heath appeared slightly uncomfortable most of the time as the center of attention, but this only added to the group's quirky charm. At one point between songs, when setup for the next number may have taken slightly longer than planned, he joked that "We're going to play some more music before I get weird."
While most of the show pulled from its 2012 album, the group did introduce the crowd to a couple new songs. Tyler said they hoped to have the new album out by the end of the year, but admitted that the process always takes longer than one would like.
Fans noticed a whistling accompaniment added to the eighth song of the night, "In Memoriam," as well as the boundless energy of violin-playing Matt during "Trees." The slower portions of "Dear Wormwood" were reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens' "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."
The night drew to a close with "The Truth is a Cave" and a thumping reprise of "The Valley" that included one drummer bringing part of his set to the floor to jam with the front row of the crowd. For two encore numbers, the band delivered with "I Was Wrong" and the group's most well-known song, "Hello My Old Heart."
The crowd left feeling satisfied. Not simply because they were entertained, but because they were a part of something personal. Toward the end of the show, Tyler Heath shared a story from the band's last visit to Missouri. They thought they had been recognized at their hotel as someone asked if they would sing. Instead, it was a father recruiting strangers to join the "Happy Birthday" chorus for his son. The band crowded into a small room lit only by a single birthday candle, sang to the scared kid with the group of grossly out-of-tune strangers and heard the father wrap up by saying "Happy Birthday, son. We all love you."
The story felt like it was only told that night to that audience in that place. The Oh Hellos offer a sincerity and humility rarely found anymore, and the band is building a loyal St. Louis following because of it.