The Lonely Wild live along the dusty road that runs from country and western to rock and roll. Their first full-length album, The Sun As It Comes, invites you to travel that road with them. The Los Angeles-based quintet uses haunting vocal harmonies, bombastic guitar and trumpets (yes, trumpets) to lead you on a journey that evokes whiskey-soaked Americana, spaghetti westerns and psychedelia. It’s gorgeous.
Their live show improbably puts all of those elements together and takes their audience along for the drive. On Sunday at Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington, VA, the band crammed no fewer than five guitars, two keyboards, two trumpets, a full drum kit, an extra snare and a melodica onto the tiny stage. The crowd that turned out was as small as the stage, but The Lonely Wild played a show that would be equally at home in a grand orchestra hall or a raucous rock club, or under an open sky.
They opened the show by playing the first four songs off the new album in order. First up was the title track “The Sun As It Comes,” which is a good as an example of The Lonely Wild sound as any other. It starts with sparse guitar and gentle, lilting vocals from Jessie Williams, the band’s female vocalist (and keyboardist, bassist and trumpeter, among other things). It builds gradually, starting with harmonies from founder and frontman Andrew Carroll, and ends with crashing cymbals and guitar distortion.
Next up was “Banks and Ballrooms,” a populist anthem and angry commentary on the 2008 bank bailout. If Woody Guthrie was alive today and had access to an electric guitar and synthesizer, this is the song he would write. Guthrie’s guitar killed fascists; The Lonely Wild is taking aim at corporate titans.
The third track on the album, and in the set, is my personal favorite. “Everything You Need” makes listeners a promise: “I will be your heart / I will be your heart / I will be your everything / if you’ll be mine.” The first notes capture the audience’s attention with a hard strumming touch and steady drums. A pair of trumpets create tension. As the song reaches and holds its crescendo, the band breaks a sweat, the audience enraptured by the-keep-your-eyes-closed intensity of the arrangement, the almost-there ache of the vocals. When the song ends without relief or release you desperately want to hear it again.
At the set’s midpoint the band launched into an out of nowhere but instantly recognizable cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” It’s been covered by Johnny Cash, Lisa Hannigan, Marilyn Manson and Panic! At the Disco, so it seems fitting that a band with as many diverse influences as The Lonely Wild would take their turn.
Near the end of the set, the band played the first single from The Sun As It Comes, “Buried in the Murder.” The audience had been warned by the opening band that this song was, “Not to be missed, incredible, like, really really good.” And so it was. Like many of their songs, this one starts soft and simply, with an almost spooky sound. There is nothing soft about the way it builds. By the end Carroll is screaming and spitting into the microphone, except he’s not, because screaming has never sounded so beautiful and spitting has never looked so sensuous. He breaks a string on his guitar halfway through the song and you know he’s not holding anything back.
They dispensed with the pretense of an encore and ended with a cover of The Henry Clay People’s “Rock and Roll has Lost Its Teeth,” because hey, why not? It’s a song about finding your place and being true to your music. I would argue that The Lonely Wild has found its place, and if it stays true to its music, the music world will find them too.
If you like The Civil Wars’ vocal harmonies, Jeff Buckley’s lush arrangements, The National’s indie rock with a twang, or Sonic Youth’s avalanche of sound, give The Lonely Wild a chance. If there is justice in the musical wild west, this band will stay wild but won’t be lonely for long.