Katie Herzig live @ The Troubadour: Starting a revolution against our own confusion

Deep into Katie Herzig‘s set at the Troubadour in West Hollywood last night, as she was playing an acoustic version of the fan favorite track “Hologram” by request, two odd realizations suddenly came to me:

  1. Wow, this was the first Katie Herzig song I ever heard, and that was 10 frigging years ago.
  2. Why wasn’t this song a huge hit?!?!?!

Now, there are a ton of more-or-less independent artists I follow who seem to have a strong cult following on the Internet, and who I could get salty about in terms of the mainstream pretty much ignoring them. But a lot of them make music that might not be “catchy” in the conventional sense, so I’m cool with it not being mainstream radio fare. Katie Herzig, though, seems to be the type of unabashedly poppy singer.songwriter who should have had a real shot at some hits back in the late 2000s. I probably only think that because I’ve always been super out-of-touch with what it takes to actually make music popular, but regardless: “Hologram” was a fun, upbeat, ridiculously catchy, self-effacing song about relationship failure that should have found a much larger audience.

I could say similar things about a lot of Katie’s songs, actually – as I’ve pointed out before, she’s the type of artist you’re more likely to hear in a film’s soundtrack or trailer, or featured on someone’s music blog, or even in the supermarket (as much as I hate to admit that, it has happened) than on mainstream radio. Her exposure doesn’t really do justice to the type of music she makes, which can range from coffeehouse-type folk songs to wall-of-sound pop/rock with lots of keyboards and electric elements, and the hard work she puts into writing, arranging and performing her songs, both in the studio and in concert. To best appreciate her, I think one needs to experience both sides of that coin – to listen to one of her lushly and meticulously arranged studio albums, and then to see her in concert with a full band, where everything becomes looser and messier and yet somehow tighter and louder, thanks to the spirited group of musicians she tends to travel with. Up until her tour for Moment of Bliss this year, I had only seen Katie perform live once, in more of an acoustic setting at the tiny Hotel Cafe in Hollywood way back in 2009. While she’s got the kind of fun-loving and self-effacing personality that quickly wins crowds over in pretty much any setting, I definitely think a full band and a mid-size venue (especially one with the rich history and star-making potential as the Troubadour) are the best way to experience her.

Even though this was the tour for Katie’s newest album Moment of Bliss, and she made a point of referencing the four years that had elapsed since her previous album and tour several times, likening it to the amount of time it takes to get a college degree, it was notable to me how much continuity there was between the new record and her older work. At times, this set almost seemed tailor-made for someone like me who hadn’t seen her since the Apple Tree days, touching upon not only the fun, bouncy singles from the intervening records The Waking Sleep and Walk Through Walls, but also pulling in deeper cuts from those records that I had gone in assuming I’d missed the boat on. All of these songs were arranged to suit the talents of her current touring band, meaning that tracks that were more driven by baroque instrumentation or little electronic bleeps and bloops on the record had a lot of those parts replaced by guitar, bass, or live keyboards. Nothing was pre-programmed, aside from perhaps a percussive sound played back on an electric drum pad here and there. This gave songs that I had assumed to be rather easygoing on the album a lot of extra oomph – I had felt good listening to these before, but I didn’t go in expecting so many of them to rattle my bones. Upbeat, busy numbers like “Moment of Bliss” and “Say It Out Loud” were one thing – those need to be noisy to get their point across. But to get so much depth from the rhythm section and such strong vocal melodies out of a more mid-tempo track like “Feel Alive” or the fan favorite “Wish You Well” made those songs feel extra special to me. My wife and I, tired of being wallflowers on the venue floor, had staked out a vantage point in the benches up in the balcony, causing us to realize how much those songs were literally shaking the rafters. Katie switched between acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards at one point, even taking the bass for the oddball “Frequencies”, the open track from Walk Through Walls that had always struck me as a lovable oddity, and that I certainly didn’t go in expecting to hear that night. It was track picks like this one that made the night feel extra special – she might have played barely half of her new album to compensate, but I never would have assumed the lush, breathtaking “Summer”, or the melancholy, classical-leaning “Closest I Get” (on which her longtime bandmate and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Hamlin played clarinet), or the percussion-heavy set closer “Way to the Future” to make an appearance. Those songs all got me PUMPED. Even her downbeat cover of Coldplay‘s “Viva la Vida”, which I had been really underwhelmed by on the recorded version, swelled up into a pretty formidable wall of sound and melody that took it to markedly different places than I would have expected. (Side note: My wife and I had just seen Crazy Rich Asianthat afternoon, which featured a Chinese-language version of “Yellow” in a climactic scene, so at this point I humorously claimed to her that Coldplay was stalking me.)

While most of the night gave the impression that Katie and her band had become a well-oiled machine who knew how to crank out a range of songs from across her discography with many moving parts to them, Katie’s acoustic set in the middle of the show stood in stark contrast. Her light and occasionally awkward stage banter constantly makes it clear that she doesn’t take herself too seriously, but the acoustic sets are where she truly takes risks. I always wonder, when an artist takes requests in concert, whether they’re truly game for playing whatever the audience wants, or whether they just wait until someone yells out a song they were planning to play anyway, and they just go with that one. After easing us into this portion of the set with the closing ballad from Moment of Bliss “Me Without You” and the drastically stripped down version of “Beat of Your Own” from her recently released Delicate EP, she opened it up to the audience, leading to the aforementioned “Hologram” (which was excellent, albeit requiring a slight bit of weird improvisation when played as a solo acoustic number) and a rather exuberant fan request for “Free My Mind”. Katie noticeably balked at that one, unsure of whether she remembered it, but ultimately she decided she was game… and then proceeded to miss several chords and finally give up when she couldn’t jump back into the right key for the final chorus (To be fair, that’s got to be a hard song to remember if you haven’t played it in a while – the chords change pretty quickly in the pre-chorus and bridge sections.) It was a bit of an embarrassing moment, but she shrugged it off playfully, and I had to admire her for taking the leap without a net. She mentioned that something scary like that had happened during this portion of a lot of her shows – but honestly, as a fan, if I had to choose between hearing a perfectly manicured setlist that I knew sounded the exact same on every night of the tour, and getting a bit of free-wheeling, anything-can-happen craziness that I knew was unique to that show, I’d probably choose the latter every time. As much as I love wall-of-sound, well-rehearsed arrangements that rattle the roof of a venue, there’s something about those funny flubs and charming missed cues that help to humanize an artist for me in the best possible way. (Check out the live video I’ve linked above, which was recorded in Katie’s home state of Colorado a few days before the show I attended, and you’ll get a completely different acoustic set in which she invites a percussionist from the crowd to come up and participate in an impromptu version of “Best Day of Your Life”, before whipping out a “medley” of “Hey Na Na” and the children’s song “Forevermore” that takes the silly improvisation to absurd levels. I think our venue had a far better sound mix, but undoubtedly her acoustic set went a little better when she was on her home turf.)

One aspect of this show that struck me as genuinely odd was the absence of two notably strong singles from Moment of Bliss, “Weight Lifting” and “I Want to Make You Proud”. I suppose those were a casualty of making room for older songs and requests in the setlists, but there were honestly several moments when I thought she might be leading into one of these and then it didn’t happen. In introducing “Say It Out Loud”, she pointed out that both this song and the previously played “Make a Noise” were actually written to speak up about environmental concerns – things which I can see obliquely in the lyrics, but probably wouldn’t have guessed on my own. “I Want to Make Your Proud” had the most activist-y music video possible made for it – it was literally just footage of her participation in the 2017 Women’s March – so I was anticipating her saying something on the subject of women’s and/or LGBTQ rights as it pertained to one of her songs. “Proud”, the closing ballad from Walk Through Walls, surprisingly made an appearance and would have been the perfect segue into this one, but nope. “Weight Lifting” was released essentially as a “coming out” statement from Katie, so to me that song will always represent her taking that brave step, and she was performing in West Hollywood so it was practically a no-brainer… but nope again. Had I known those two singles weren’t foregone conclusions as a part of her setlist, I’d have called out for one of them during the request section, but oh well. I really can’t complain, because she gave us such a rich and diverse sampling of her discography. And while I’ll take any explanation Katie is willing to give for one of her songs, I also appreciate how she recognizes that many of her songs, due to the open-ended way in which she tends to write them, have taken on many meanings for many different people. “Wish You Well”, a song I’ve come to appreciate a lot more than I did back in the day, is probably her most shining example of that – it may well be remembered her signature song when all is said and done.

Setlist:

  • Strangers
  • Summer
  • Make a Noise
  • Frequencies
  • Moment of Bliss
  • Say It Out Loud
  • Feel Alive
  • Me Without You (acoustic)
  • Beat of Your Own (acoustic)
  • Hologram (acoustic)
  • Free My Mind (acoustic)
  • Walk Through Walls
  • Proud
  • Closest I Get
  • Viva la Vida (Coldplay cover)
  • Wish You Well
  • Lost and Found
  • Way to the Future

Two opening acts preceded Katie on the bill that night, both fellow Tennessee residents. (Katie is from Colorado, but she makes her professional home in Nashville.) The first was a guitar-wielding singer-songwriter by the name of William Wild, who I felt bad for since the crowd was  painfully thin for the first two-thirds of his set, but he soldiered on, even joking at one point that his mostly relationship-oriented songs sounded even more intense to him when played for a small crowd. He made some interesting use of the vocorder to add volume and flavor to one of his acoustic songs, but beyond that I didn’t find his set particularly memorable. Sawyer, a guitar-based female vocal duo, fared much better, with their energy perhaps bolstered by it being their first night on the tour. Their music was reminiscent of Haim and Lucius in several places – it’s harmless pop music, but it’s something I look forward to hearing more of if and when they manage to get a full LP out. They certainly knew how to work the crowd by opening with a cover of The Spice Girls‘ “Wannabe” and closing with Tears for Fears‘ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. Perhaps it was a bit of pandering, but I didn’t get into that Tears for Fears song until over a decade after the fact, and it’s not like I was ever into The Spice Girls, and I still enjoyed both covers. Their Spotify page features a pretty solid cover of The Temper Trap‘s “Sweet Disposition” – not as well known as the other two songs, obviously, but I’d have been eating from the palms of their hands if they’d played that one!

Whatever genre of music into, if you live in or are visiting L.A. and have a chance to catch a favorite artist performing at the Troubadour, I’d definitely encourage you to drop everything and do it. The traffic will absolutely suck, but it’ll be worth it. Classic L.A. venues are hit-or-miss for me – some are a real hassle to get in and out of, some are super-draconian with their rules concerning cell phones and whether you can leave the venue and return at will, some just pack themselves well beyond comfortable capacity and it becomes a total cattle call. The Troubadour, after all these years of having launched now-world famous artists, still strikes me as a surprisingly chill and humble little venue, or at least it did on this particular weeknight when playing host to a worthy pop artist who has thus far fallen through the cracks of mainstream stardom. I suppose if Katie Herzig had become massively popular over the years, then this setting would no longer be feasible for one of her live shows, especially after a four-year absence from touring. But I don’t want to be one of those hipsters who actively discourages the masses from getting into an artist I like, so let’s just say that if she fills out a larger venue the next time she comes to L.A., I’d be cool with that too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s