A Band without a Rock Star: The Lumineers Tour with III

I arrived late to The Lumineers phenomenon, even though I noticed the rise of Americana-flavored music in television ads and radio spots in the early 2010’s, only picking up their album Cleopatra in 2016 and then back-tracking to check out their debut album and previous ephemera. It still wasn’t until 2019 that I managed to see the band perform live, as part of a one-day festival at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, and it wasn’t until I saw a Lumineers-led show in Brooklyn in early 2020 that I came upon the idea that they were a veteran touring band, known for their dogged schedule of live performances.

I wouldn’t have guessed that from either performance I had witnessed. That’s not a criticism of their skills as a live band, but a point of interest for me. How could a band known for touring and much in demand for live shows from fans have produced such a middle-of-the-road impression on me? My expectations were different, clearly. I was steeped in rock, pop, and metal live events. I was particularly used to spectacle at stadium shows. This was something different that I read in different ways than other, more seasoned, fans. They were already in the know that a Lumineers show was something other than rock. I was the odd one out.

After five hours at Forest Hills in the summer sun listening to quite a parade of bands waiting for The Lumineers, who appeared just after sundown in the perfectly-timed cooling darkness, myself and the packed venue stood for the entire one-hour set. And the vast majority of the tunes got a sing-along from just about everyone there, many reasonably well-known hits from a band that went platinum with their debut album.

Except the four new songs they dropped that night in June—all from their forthcoming album III, three of which had been released on iTunes in May (“Donna”, “Life in the City”, “Gloria”) and one of which was a debut, “Leader of the Landslide”. To those new songs, folks listened with rapt attention trying to pick out familiar motifs and the recurring “simple” beats which appear to be part of the band’s intentional goals for their music (It’s a word that comes up often in reviews and interviews, though the term may be deceptive).

All in all, the new work was well received, and engagement was encouraged by a video stream of a visual narrative that tapped into songs like “Gloria” and inducted us into the Sparks family saga that the completed album would fully unveil. For those who have seen the band touring recently, you’ll be familiar with their use of screens and projections onto unusual-shaped scaffolding to add to their performance. Rather than projecting a lot of light or effects outward, into the audience, we’re getting a smoother backdrop effect that suggests another layer of narrative happening on the stage itself.

You’d be justified in calling III a concept album, but you probably shouldn’t call it a “rock opera”, not because it couldn’t be deemed operatic with its intentional three-part structure. Rather the word “rock” is the problem. While plenty of music specialists and detail-oriented fans would agree that what The Lumineers produce is not rock, led by Alice Cooper’s clear statements on the subject, it’s not the musical style that differentiates the band in my book. From a purely performance-based perspective, it’s something else entirely.

There is no rock star.

It’s a coin toss as to whether the audience thinks there is or should be a rock star on that stage at a Lumineers concert. There are probably many people who are projecting that need and creating that effect for themselves. That’s made easier for them because there is a lead singer who is also, as far as the public can tell, the lyricist. Add to that the fact that the new album, III, contains a wealth of autobiographical reference that Wesley Schultz is vocal about, unreeling fairly blood-chilling commentary about his family history.

But when he came on stage at Forest Hills, there was a fairly visible moment of reaction from Schultz at the fervor of the crowd, the intensity of the welcome, the fairly explosive drop of the short set. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him take a couple of steps backward after he reached the center of the stage, times to the roar of adulation. The band didn’t miss a beat, though, and proceeded to direct this energy into a highly charged collaborative experience for fans. It wasn’t a weak performance in the least.

But it was a visible disjunction between rock and something else.

Whatever we may say about the origins of rock music itself, when it comes to performance, there wasn’t a lengthy prologue to the emergence of rock stars at the core of rock music. There was a preparation period, certainly, where we see bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones standing side-by-side in matching outfits during stilted television appearances, equally arranged in distance from the front of the stage. Prior to this, in the R&B scene, musicians usually sat on stools or chairs in just such a row or semi-circle facing the audience, with a visual and musical sense of distributed status. Arguably singers like Elvis, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger changed all that, with Elvis and Jagger contributing hugely to the mythos of the lead singer, morphing into this new idea of the rock star.

If The Lumineers are not rock, it makes sense that they also don’t conform to the now internationally recognized paradigm of popular live performances built around a monolithic rock star. Musically speaking, Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites have always been the twin pillars of music-making for the band. That’s true of many bands where a key musician is often the composer and even the lyricist while the front-man may or may not be involved in putting songs together. Here the two have always collaborated closely, with Schultz citing a music-first approach that starts with some riffs or motifs from Fraites kicking things off, then moving on stage by stage until the song is completed.

But that duality isn’t where it stops for The Lumineers and their performance in Brooklyn in 2020 made that particularly clear. The band has been taking more of an orbit-based configuration for performance as the key role of violinist (now filled by Lauren Jacobsen after Nayla Pekarek’s departure) and pianist (held by Stelth Ulvang) were also highlighted by the stage design.

On this tour for III, the stage plays with traditional front-facing rectangular design but also splays outwards in something like a hollow heart shape, punctuated by specific wider platform “stations” that different musicians made use of throughout the show. Of course, this brings the performers close to the audience in dynamic ways, but in this case, it really highlighted the distribution of focus among members of the band.

It wasn’t just Schultz who charged around the arm-like extremities and took the spotlight, with Fraites’ drumkit proving mobile, and even shoeless Ulvang doing a complete lap barefoot toward the end of the show. It was Schultz who broke away from the stage and walked in a long rectangular course up and down the stadium rows to engage with fans while singing “Ho Hey” , and even descended onto the floor of the heart for the finale, a very rock star move, but the way the proscenium was used was far more than a token gesture to bring fans into the music.

It was genuinely disruptive to the assumption that The Lumineers might be a rock band.

In the end, you would probably have to argue specific song by specific song which Lumineers pieces might be closer to or further from rock on a musical spectrum. You could disentangle certain traditions and signatures that probably take the band back to a common ancestor to rock rather than proving any line of direct descent.

But the clearest indication these days is rolled out in front of tens of thousands of people who may be asking for a rock star but aren’t really being given one. The music, and the traditions behind it, just don’t allow for one, however many concessions Schultz might make to providing fans with the front man they can’t help but expect. The two excellently presented cover tunes in the Brooklyn show, Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” (which is also a bonus release on the album III), arguably bring the band back into the orbit of rock. Particularly Dylan’s song, since while both Dylan and Cohen are American balladeers, Dylan could never be accused of eschewing rock stardom. But if you place Schultz and Dylan side by side, you’ll notice as many differences as similarities, particularly in the way they handle live performance.

Constitutionally, in the Lumineers, we’re still seeing that semi-circular huddle and intense inter-connectedness of a different strain of music when they take the stage, and with III representing a greater degree of musical complexity than previous albums, however universal the band’s goals may be, you’re going to notice that tight-knit distribution of energy now more clearly than ever.

The key thing, of course, is that fans don’t mind this ambiguity. The music really does speak for itself. And every musician involved makes clear efforts to bring the audience into their inner circle of performance. Together, that magic circle works. Audiences have not yet totally forgotten the alternatives to rock star-driven modes of performance, the biggest and most robust living example being classical ensembles.

But if you make the same mistaken assumptions that I did, that a wealth of touring should lead to a polished, highly charged attack on the audience in the hands of a front-man, you’ll be similarly confused encountering this band live. The Lumineers are a different animal altogether, making only the absolutely necessary concessions to large scale performance venues and expectations.