Switchfoot and Colony House live @ The Wiltern: Bands of Brothers

You know you’re a huge fan of a band when a friend asks you how many times you’ve seen them live, and you realize you’ve lost count. It’s funny, because I haven’t really considered myself a massive Switchfoot fan for quite a while, probably since the mid-2000s when The Beautiful Letdown hit it big, and was admirably followed up by Nothing Is Sound and Oh! Gravity. Paradoxically, that’s my favorite era of Switchfoot’s discography, and yet I got to the point where I became downright sick of the most well-known songs from those albums being must-plays in their setlists. It’s probably because I saw them live several times that decade, and when I see a band live multiple times, I prefer to hear them play stuff from their newer albums, or if they’re gonna play old stuff, I’d like to hear a few I’ve never heard live before. The Beautiful Letdown is my favorite Switchfoot album (an area where I’d guess I’m agreement with the majority of their fans), but I’d be perfectly fine never hearing that album’s heavy-hitters “Dare You to Move”, “This Is Your Life”, or “Meant to Live”, from them ever again. I love those songs. A ton of other people do too, and I guess I can’t fault someone who shows up, never having seen the band before, for wanting the trip down memory lane. It was because of this (and a string of less than impressive albums in the late 2000s/early 2010s) that I cooled off on seeing them live for a while after witnessing a just-OK live set on their tour for Vice Verses in 2011. (Even then, there were a couple of Fiction Family shows in between, and the Jon Foreman solo show I went to this time last year, because he is simply one of my favorite people in the entire universe.) This year’s Native Tongue isn’t really one of my favorite albums of theirs, either, but 2016’s When the Light Shines Through was a pleasant surprise that seemed a bit underrated among the fanbase, and I kicked myself for missing out on their tour with Relient K that year (who themselves had just put out the startlingly excellent Air For Free). When they announced a tour with Colony House slated for this spring, I knew I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.

Oh, and speaking of Colony House… you know you’re a big fan of a band when you’ve never had the chance to see them live before, and you jump at the chance, even though they’re opening for another band and won’t be playing a full set, because you just know they’re gonna be that good. Colony House might have actually been the bigger draw for me this time around. I have no real sense of how big their fanbase is, but they seem criminally underexposed from where I sit. Whenever I bring them up, even to folks who enjoy a lot of music in that same “Came from the Christian rock world, but really just makes fun and non-preachy music for anyone to enjoy” sort of vein, I tend to get blank stares. Explaining that the two guys who started the band are the adult sons of Steven Curtis Chapman tends to be more of a music geek fun fact than a useful selling point, as these guys have a clear advantage over their dad: They bring a lot more formidable rock energy, and generally know how to have a blast without being overly corny. What you hear on the albums is generally the same experience you’ll get live – they have their more anthemic pop songs and their louder, jammier rockers, and they don’t waste a lot of time on gimmicks. Their second album Only the Lonely was my #1 favorite album of the year 2017, and considering that, it’s downright insane that I had never gone back and listened to their 2014 debut When I Was Younger until just this week, since it’s almost as good. What catches my attention on an album and what I enjoy in a live show are often very different things, but these guys have the type of sound that immediately made it abundantly clear I’d enjoy both a great deal. With all due respect to Switchfoot, who has been (and continues to be) one of the hardest working and most energetic live bands I’ve ever had the privilege to see live, Colony House’s set was the part of the evening I was actually anticipating the most. (Singer/songwriter Tyson Motsenbocker was also on the bill, but we didn’t make it inside the venue until his set had just ended. Sorry, Tyson… L.A. rush hour traffic is what it is.)

I’ve probably gone on in at least one prior concert review about how The Wiltern Theater is one of my favorite L.A. venues. The location sucks in terms of traffic conditions at pretty much any time of day, much less the typical start time for a concert. But once I’m there and settled in, it’s got just the right combination of decorative grandeur, iconic history, and reasonably large but not overwhelming crowd size to make a live show an experience that is memorable for the right reasons. The sense of nostalgia I felt for the various shows I attended there over the years was heightened this time around, as I remembered that the very first show I had ever attended there was also the first time I had ever seen Switchfoot, as the opening act for Delirious? way back in 1999. They were a vastly different band back then – still just the original three members, kind of goofy and clumsy, with only two albums to their name that the band pretty consistently ignores in their setlists nowadays. That was literally almost half my life ago, when I was fresh out of college. My outlook on life and my musical tastes are markedly different nowadays, yet Switchfoot is one of the bands that has mostly managed to keep my attention, and despite a number of their albums being a bit dodgy, I can honestly say that they still put out powerful songs these days that easily rank up there among my favorites with some of the oldies that I feel the strongest nostalgia for. Perhaps it was due to the flashbacks I got that evening to a time in my life I otherwise don’t think about much these days, but I felt like I was more receptive to hearing some of those older songs that I felt like I’d heard Switchfoot play a bunch of times before, and yet I hadn’t honestly sat down and listened to some of them in a while. I kind of heard a few of them with new ears.

Switchfoot’s tradition lately (or at least, it was consistent between this show and the Vice Verses show I also caught at The Wiltern nine years ago) seems to be that they’ll start their set off with a song from the new album, then go through the back catalogue for a while before circling back around to their more recent highlights. Their tours don’t seem to lean as heavily on selling their latest album – they played maybe half of Vice Verses back in 2011, and I’m not even sure they managed to work that much of Native Tongue into the setlist this time around. Opening with the sassy talk-singing and abrasive guitar playing of “Take My Fire” from the new album was certainly an odd choice – fun song, but Foreman’s vocal choices in that one get on my nerves a bit, and it feels like a pale reflection of earlier songs like “Bull in a China Shop” and “Selling the News” that did those things a little more believably. But they went through several heavy hitters after that – the obligatory “Meant to Live” (which was reworked slightly with a keep-em-guessing guitar intro for maximum fan excitement when its iconic riff kicked in), “Stars” (which I was genuinely wowed by after all these years due to realizing all over again much ass Chad Butler‘s drum rolls kick on that one), and “Oh! Gravity” (which is from an underdog album that I happen to alike, but that seems to have stuck around because it’s a short blast of energy that always punches up their setlists). I joked that after this point we should expect something from Hello Hurricane, in order to hit each album from The Beautiful Letdown onward in chronological order. They did get to that eventually, and surprisingly there was room for at least one song from every album as far back as 2000’s Learning to Breathe (OK, I’m counting “Dare You to Move” as belonging to that album despite it reaching a much bigger audience when it was redone for The Beautiful Letdown, but still). Nothing from the 90s, but it would be silly to expect that at this point.

But wait! Jon Foreman actually went on at length in one of his “We’re so grateful we get to sing with you guys” sorts of spiels that he pretty much always gives to his audience (and that I’m 100% certain he genuinely means), about the simplicity of the old days when the band was just starting out with The Legend of Chin, even reminding us about their buddy who they named the album after. During an acoustic portion of their set when it seemed like they were going through a few lesser-known oldies in a less-rehearsed, stripped-down fashion, I actually thought for a second that they might pull out a track from their long-forgotten debut. Nope, this bit about bringing it all back to something simple just turned out to be the preamble to the rather bland Native Tongue single “All I Need”. Talk about misdirection! An earlier mention of them recording The Beautiful Letdown in L.A. and all the good memories they got from being back in the city also felt misplaced, since it preceded a string of much newer songs as well. Not that I mind these little anecdotes that give us glimpses into the band’s history, but come on Jon, at least bring them out when they’re relevant to the song you’re about to play, y’know?

Anyway, on the subject of the more recent songs, I was genuinely excited that no less than four songs from Where the Light Shines Through actually made it into the setlist. Finally hearing “Float” live, and getting to move to its funky, off-kilter beat, was downright rapturous. The band has a lot of bedazzling lights and other visual tracks going on throughout most of their set, but the disco ball and bubble machine gave that one a party-like atmosphere that made me feel like a kid again. They blazed through “If the House Burns Down Tonight” with even more energy than the already fast and dense take heard on the album. Admittedly I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “Live It Well” (especially with “All I Need” to come later – those two songs are interchangeably beige Christian radio fodder in my opinion), but the ballad “I Won’t Let You Go” was a nice surprise. I had even heard Foreman sing that one by request at his solo show last year, and somehow it still felt fresh hearing the full band do it. Foreman is not a man who I would have said in the early days would ever become one of my favorite singers. But somehow the cross between his usual creaky vulnerability and some genuinely sweet falsetto notes reminded me how much he had improved over the years. Two other tracks from the album – the title track and “Hope Is the Anthem” – were also teased as intros or outros to other songs, as if to say that Foreman would play ALL of his songs until every last fan request was exhausted if he had the time to, and in lieu of that, he’d do his best to at least make a nod to a few extra ones in the margins. He even joked as they began the acoustic part of the show (which began with a rather bumpy, but somehow still, charming, unplugged take on “Hello Hurricane”) that this was when fans would yell out song titles and be disappointed that they didn’t get played. (They had literally just finished “Float” right before that. So I was good as far as potential requests were concerned.)

The new material was hit and miss in a live setting. Native Tongue is kind of all over the place as an album, so I guess I wasn’t surprised, but what startled me at first about its early singles was how they emphasized rhythm so much more than guitar. Aside from “Take My Fire” and “All I Need”, which for better or worse were just like the album with some extended bits to get the audience to participate, they also played “Voices” (which has really grown on me as an album track, but seemed a bit limp in its live execution), “Dig New Streams” (which is a bizarre Frankenstein of a song that came off great live due to how it emphasizes each member of the band at different times, including a verse sung by bassist Tim Foreman), and of course the irresistibly bouncy title track, which was perfectly placed as the first encore song. “Native Tongue” was the best sing-along moment of the night, at which point I figured, who cares if I’m starting to lose my voice, I’m gonna belt out those high notes anyway because this song is just so unbelievably fun and yet one whose meaning I feel on a much deeper level as well. Colony House and Tyson Motsenbocker came back out on stage to sing that one with them, and it was a total blast. There were moments in that one where the guitarists (Jon Foreman, Drew Shirley, and Colony House’s lead singer/axe man Caleb Chapman) got to shine, which isn’t a notable aspect of on the album version, so that was a strong choice to give the song a bit more edge. They even cleverly saved the song’s quieter outro for the end of the following song… which unfortunately was the closing track from Vice Verses, “Where I Belong”. I found that song to be rather predictable and take up a lot of real estate back when they closed with it on the tour for that album; I didn’t expect to hear it again all these years later, and found that I still barely remembered how it went despite it being an audience sing-along by design. (I’d have so much rather heard “Dark Horses” again, if I had to double-dip on songs from that album.) The other track from Native Tongue to sort of make an appearance was “Prodigal Soul”, which got a few scattered cheers from fans who had apparently been crossing their fingers for it, but which turns out to be part of the patchwork quilt of medleys that the band crammed in later in the set. The strum pattern Jon was playing on his acoustic felt naggingly familiar until… yep, here comes “Dare You to Move”. It was a clever way to pivot into that song, I had to admit, but those hoping to hear “Prodigal Soul” in its entirety must have felt slightly shafted. I’m guessing. It’s not a song that particularly stands out to me.

There were times during Switchfoot’s set when I had to marvel at how sly they were about packing audience participation moments into so many of their songs. Usually it’s the old trick of throwing a lot of “whoa-ohs” into a song, which is way overused these days, but they’ve been doing it since way back when so I guess I can let it slide when there’s some genuine substance to a song beside that, which there usually is. (“Love Alone Is Worth the Fight”, the lone selection from Fading West, was the only time where I questioned if we’d gotten swept up in one too many instances of this particular gimmick that night.) Honestly, there were a lot of moments where I could remember back to the time a lyric from an older song I had heard a thousand times since (and started to take for granted) first spoke to some sort of a question or yearning I had deep inside of me. As entertaining as Switchfoot is as a live band, and as much as I may feel that they’re casting their nets overly wide at times to milk that lowest common denominator, “Hey, this sort of resembles something I’m going through!” sort of appeal, I can’t deny that there are real fears and dreams and riddles for the ages driving all of those songs as they come from the pen of Jon Foreman (and sometimes his brother Tim and other members of the band, but usually Jon’s the starting point). Beyond the mere desire to be entertained by a dizzyingly good rock show, that’s the real reason I continue to connect with Switchfoot after all these years, despite all the criticism I’ve had to dole out when a song or an album doesn’t live up to expectations. Switchfoot is a band that began humbly with two brothers and a friend of theirs, not even having a bona fide lead singer yet but just sorting of thrusting Jon into that position for lack of other viable options, and that grew to take on two new members later on. And every time I see them, despite Jon being the main draw for most of us fans, I feel like he does his utmost to shine the spotlight on everyone in the band, and also the audience, because he really feels deep down that we are all one big, extended family, to the point where that’s the prevailing mood of their performances. Perhaps the most poignant, life-affirming moment of the show came early on, when Jon announced that their keyboard player and versatile multi-instrumentalist Jerome Fontamillas, who had battled cancer during the band’s recent hiatus, was now 100% cancer-free. It’s hard to hate or even be ambivalent toward a chorus that rings out, “Life is short, I wanna live it well!” after a moment like that. I tried, I really did. But Switchfoot’s stubbornly optimistic tendency to remind me that this is my life and I’m meant to live it, so they dare me to move, admittedly won me over yet again.

Oh yeah, and that other band I came to see, that we showed up just in time for? Colony House KILLED IT. I had no doubt that they would. The fans seemed really into them, and I had no idea how many of those folks had actually heard any of their stuff before that night. Still being new to their first album, which surprisingly took up more of the setlist than their second, I found myself connecting pretty strongly with a number of its songs, and I was convinced, upon getting swept up in some of their larger-than-life melodies and the extended jams that the band did on a few of their heavier songs, that even if I’d never heard of this band before tonight, I’d have been a fan by the end of their set for sure. I’m surprised that it didn’t occur to me how solid of a fit they were for a Switchfoot tour. Their sound draws more from classic rock and power pop than the more quirky/alternative sound Switchfoot has become known for over the years, but Colony House has its idiosyncrasies as well, such as the stop-on-a-dime tempo changes heard in the latter half of “You & I”, the pounding drums and instant sing-along goodness of “Was It Me” and “You Know It” (the latter being their set closer, with a cover of the surf rock classic “Wipeout” cleverly used to tee it up as Will Chapman proved himself to be an absolute beast on the drums), or the more euphoric, radio-ready choruses of earlier songs like “Glorious” and “Waiting For My Time to Come”. Sure, if I had my way I’d have dropped one or two more old songs to make room for the one-two punch of “Follow Me Down” and “Remembered For”, which to me are the most meaningful tracks on their second record. But I’m actually glad that they took a few minutes to show their softer side, with Caleb switching to the acoustic, telling a few anecdotes about how young he was when he first learned to play guitar (thanks, famous musician dad!) and how he ended up marrying the girl he had started writing a love song for when he was nine years old. His wife and toddler son actually made a brief appearance on stage during the song “Moving Forward”, which Caleb dedicated to his family. (He made a wisecrack about how that was his son’s first time on stage, and probably wouldn’t be his last. In this family, I can believe it.) Your average audience member, not knowing the family backstory, might not have realized how many ups and downs the Chapmans had been through leading up to the songs on Colony House’s first album being written – the highs of marriages and births, and the lowest of the lows when Caleb and Will lost their adopted younger sister in 2008, due to her suddenly running into the path of Will’s truck as he pulled into the family’s driveway. (The guilt and grief over it, which was documented in their father’s album Beauty Will Rise, is also alluded to in the track “Won’t Give Up” on When I Was Younger, which for understandable reasons is probably not one they play live a lot.) Colony House’s presence on stage was an engaging mix of total confidence and complete humility – they knew how to get the audience singing along with songs most of us probably didn’t know, and they acknowledged that they were simply there as huge fans of Switchfoot themselves, to warm the crowd up for the main act and not to shine the spotlight solely on themselves. They set the tone for the warm sense of family that permeated the rest of the evening. And none of the sentimentality got in the way of them delivering a jaw-droppingly good rock show. They’re a band to watch for sure. I will absolutely jump at the chance to see them again if they ever come around as a headliner.

Switchfoot Setlist:

  • Take My Fire
  • Meant to Live
  • Stars
  • Oh! Gravity
  • Live It Well
  • I Won’t Let You Go
  • Voices
  • Love Alone Is Worth the Fight
  • Float
  • Hello Hurricane
  • The Shadow Proves the Sunshine
  • All I Need
  • Dig New Streams
  • If the House Burns Down Tonight
  • Prodigal Soul (intro)/Dare You to Move/Where the Light Shines Through (snippet)

Encore:

  • Native Tongue
  • Hope Is the Anthem (intro)/Where I Belong/Native Tongue (outro)

Colony House Setlist:

  • You & I
  • Silhouettes
  • Was It Me
  • Learning How to Love
  • Glorious
  • Lonely
  • Caught Me By Surprise
  • Moving Forward
  • Waiting For My Time to Come
  • Wipeout (intro)/You Know It

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