Live Review: The Oh Hellos @ 9:30 Club — 12/19/18

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The Oh Hellos perform at 9:30 Club on Dec. 19, 2018. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)

White Christmas tree on a balcony. Lights dangling from the ceiling and draped on railings. More holiday-themed clothing than an ugly sweater competition. Mics covered in holly and burgundy ribbons. An Oh Hellos Christmas tree on the stage. A giant television evoking the static-dusted sets of yesteryear. A small fireplace with a handful of stockings. Billowing white drapes evoking snowfall and clouds overhead.

Awesome decorating, 9:30 Club, although you couldn’t pay me enough to hang those lights!

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With these trappings, the Oh Hellos dropped by 9:30 Club on Dec. 19 for a Christmas Extravaganza celebration. All seven of the members (down from nine in previous years) crested or crashed onto the stage, dressed festively.  From the first moment, the audience is enthralled, as Maggie and Tyler Heath (siblings, the core of the band) beamed smiles from the stage.

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The Oh Hellos have released a pair of EPs (part of planned four-part set) — *Notos* (2017) and *Eurus* (2018) — dealing with themes of change (Notos and Eurus are the Greco-Roman gods of the southern and western winds, as well as associated with the seasons). Consistent with The Oh Hellos’ history, the songs deal with weighty ideas rippling underneath beautiful harmonies and tight rhythms. Big questions are asked — never answered directly — but the songs still shimmer and shine enough that the listener can choose not to engage with the heaviness. Their loss, but to each their own.

Stream Eurus by The Oh Hellos on Spotify:

The set featured a handful of songs from these EPs — ”On the Mountain Tall,” “Torches,” ”O Sleeper,” “Eurus,” ”Constellations” — but the decorations heralded the focus of the night: Christmas carols, in all their glory, from the whimsical songs of The Muppet Christmas (never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d get to hear “Scrooge,” however briefly, in person) to traditional carols, as well as plenty of the classic tunes I remember singing in the dark pews of my youth.

Tyler introduced the show by saying he knows not everybody has the same relationship with holidays. For some of us, the holidays can be fraught with heaviness or just not that important. He joked that obviously the band has a special love for it, pointing around him at the stage with a daylight bright smile, the crowd laughing, then exhorting us all to sing when we know the words, to enjoy ourselves, and to dance. So, with the crowd even tighter than the packed stage, a large group of strangers united for a time to sing timeless songs full of nostalgia, to spread cheer, and to experience joy. So very much joy.

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The show began with “One More Sleep ‘til Christmas,” but with Tyler singing instead of Kermit, and then slipping into “Christmastime Is Here.” Maggie sang one of the standouts from Notos, “On the Mountain Tall” — that album’s opening number — with one of the best lyrics of the last 13 months (came out in December 2017), “firing bricks from canon and prose / to build a wall so high it reaches the heavens in the sky.” I won’t pretend to know what it’s about, but that play on cannon/canon evokes the Tower of Babel in ways I’ve neither seen nor heard before.

The party really kicked off with Mvmt I (“Rejoice! Rejoice!”) from from *The Oh Hellos Family Christmas Album* (I recommend purchasing this on vinyl, lighting your tree, and lying on the floor with someone you love while the world twinkles around you — whether person, pet, or memory). It tells the beginning of the Advent story, using “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and a flickering moment of the Coventry Carol. The Oh Hellos ultimately played all four movements from their album, saving the others for later in the show.

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Almost exactly in the middle of the show, Tyler announced a brief break to drink water, encouraging the audience to ask neighbors about their weirdest holiday traditions, sharing that he’d recently heard about the game, “Find the Pickle” many families play. Guitarist Josh Heinlein quipped that it doesn’t sound like the most appropriate tradition, although Tyler explained it’s a bit more innocent than it sounds.

The Oh Hellos then invited a group of audience members to the stage for Chime Time, when they all held the responsibility to sing along with “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” while jingling some chimes. A diverse group came to the stage, largely wearing outfits appropriate for the holidays (including a heavily-menorah-ed dress and at least one bow tie).

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Onstage, The Oh Hellos were kinetic, with Tyler Heath nearly static, Maggie Heath moving like smooth water as she dances, and everybody else like barely contained cyclones splashing and thrashing. It was an exercise in dynamics to watch them flow like currents with the singular destination of an incredible show.

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In addition to all of the Christmas songs, The Oh Hellos unwrapped a dozen of their own songs throughout the set. From old-time fan favorites like “Hello, My Old Heart” and “Soldier, Poet, King” to ”Exeunt” and “Pale, White Horse” from the well-loved Dear Wormwood record, plus a rendition of “Truth Is a Cave” from their first full-length, they spread cheer in more than Christmas songs. As previously mentioned, they played many newer songs as well, including an effervescing and cleansing “Constellations,” an absolute highlight about change and inconstancy, hope, and light.

The band ended the set by inviting the opening act, The Family Crest, to crowd the stage with them (14 people in all) to sing and dance for “The Valley (Reprise),” during which violinist Matthew Hagerman showered the audience and stage with snow, the 9:30 Club once more reverberating with thunderous, palpable joy.

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The Oh Hellos said good night, walked off the stage, and returned to sing “Trees” (another favorite of old and new fans from the first EP) and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” before ending the night with a wave goodbye in red and green, their tidings of great cheer delivered, their merriness spread. They can go back to Texas knowing that they made the holidays better for at least a few hundred people in DC.

Here are some more photos of The Oh Hellos. All photos copyright and courtesy of Matt Ruppert.

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