This country can be an unforgiving place to those in entertainment who makes mistakes, especially errors that anyone with common decency would agree are significant and alarming.
But America, as we have seen throughout history and in recent times, can also provide artists the opportunity to redeem and reinvent themselves if there is still enough support for their craft and what they originally set out to do.
That might be the easiest way for an outsider to rationalize or make sense of Pinegrove, a band originally from Montclair, New Jersey, that played to a packed house at Rams Head Live in Baltimore recently — but a band that saw its rise to fame derailed several years ago by what were and still should be considered serious accusations of sexual coercion against lead singer and guitarist Evan Stephens Hall.
Those accusations, while not of a physical nature, still sent ripples through the band’s large community of followers—self-titled “Pinenuts” — at a time when it was soaring in popularity. The group itself, one that had supported a variety of progressive causes since forming in 2010, publicly acknowledged the situation and found itself the subject of many an article dissecting the situation not just in music media, but the media at large.
But after a hiatus that spanned late 2017 to late 2018, and after a well-documented attempt to make whatever amends were possible, Pinegrove reentered the picture, sharing with the world the band’s third record, Skylight, which had been postponed by the operational halt.
While some diehards might say that the story is now history, the situation absolutely shaped the band during the crucial years leading up to and then, most likely, during the pandemic — a time that forced just about all musicians to sit, reflect and contemplate what’s next, if anything at all.
So perhaps that’s why last Tuesday night’s performance in Baltimore felt like so much more of an achievement than other well attended shows at the Power Plant Live! venue. And, after all, this was the band’s first tour to legitimately support the 2020 release, Marigold, its first album fully completed in the wake of the controversy.
Watch Pinegrove perform “Angelina” during an Audiotree Live performance on YouTube:
Strolling out to a zealous, vocal crowd on Oct. 19, Hall smiled ear to ear and waved before grabbing one of his Fender guitars and leading an authentic, quenching set of music that showcased this band’s ability to toil in emotional murkiness, the sounds pivoting from dazed and angry to relieving, even therapeutic.
“Darkness,” a standout from Skylight played early in the night, resonated as one of the band’s most accessible songs, and at Rams Head, its lovably doleful lyrics and veering composition served to warm up both the band and the audience.
“Lots of angles, I love the angles,” Hall said, commenting about the Rams Head venue’s bizarre construct — something MC Escher might design. Evan shared that, early in the morning, he’d seen a random “word of the day,” which happened to be “manticore,” a folklore creature said to have a man’s head, horns, a lion’s body, and the tail of a dragon.
“As it turns out, they’re rams horns,” he said. “That’s how I knew tonight was gonna rock.”
Hall’s musical partner since the pair was just seven years old, Zack Levine unquestionably lays the band’s foundation as the drummer and a vocalist as well. Zack injected emotion with his demeanor and his play, his tight bursts adding not just rhythm but textures that have colored and dressed each Pinegrove album. He and Evan were in lockstep from start to finish, a product of their bond stretching back across decades, and their intense eye contact at what felt like important moments signaled that connection.
Joining this fruitful musical tandem on this tour, Sam Skinner, also a sound engineer, was on electric guitar and keys; Josh Marre from the night’s opener Blue Ranger was also playing electric guitar; and Megan Benavente of Chuck Is a Band handled bass all night. Making his way to each of them through the set, Hall seemed to invite these musicians to augment the live Pinegrove sound with their own personal touch. Four different single-color flags flew above them, perhaps a symbol of diversity but also coexistence, a moral the band has championed.
Stream Pinegrove’s 2020 release Marigold via Spotify:
“Cadmium,” off the 2016 smash Cardinal, artfully transitioned from one unique section and verse to another, landing on and riding a remarkably thick groove before culminating with Evan’s trademark howl carried a wonderfully vague chorus:
“Say what it is
It’s so impossible
But if I just say what it is
It tends to sublimate away
When I was looking to drop
My life away.”
A single released in late August, “Orange” is a starkly beautiful, wailing addition to the band’s catalogue, one that was well received in Baltimore and delivered underneath a thoughtfully hued light display, amplified by three electric guitars echoing in unison.
“This was my attempt to metabolize the climate crisis,” said Hall as he introduced the track. “I was feeling angry. I was feeling scared about politicians who think they’re celebrities and getting rich off it.”
He called out President Joe Biden’s recent decisions on a number of climate-related issues, before trailing off: “I feel sort of upset about it, if you feel anything about it from this, that’s an honor.”
His voice at its most pitiful, he built and twirled to an outright cry, his words calling to task everyone listening, asking them to scrutinize the concerning changes taking place to our physical world:
“They’re trying to ignore it
We always knew they’d try
Today the sky is orange
And you and I know why.”
Watch Evan Stephens Hall perform an acoustic version of Pinegrove’s newest single, “Orange,” on YouTube:
Devotees shouted lyrics word for word. “They’re so FUCKING GOOD,” a statement overhead anywhere you let your ears drift in between tunes. Regardless of their off-stage challenges, Pinegrove appeared to generate real, almost tangible support and nourishment for its most ardent fans, and that was evident anywhere you looked at Rams Head.
A sulky, impassioned version of “The Alarmist” gave Marre — who was celebrating his birthday — a chance to bring his slide skills to the fold, while Benavente’s rubbery lines made the song that much more impulsive.
While it’s a shorter tune originally recorded on the 2015 release Everything So Far, “Angelina” might best capture the gorgeous downcast Evan can apply to his words, and he does so within the confines of songs that ask tough questions that will likely be bottled up, probably never answered:
“I love you like it’s the old days
When I could ask you anything
How’d you get so tangled up in my thinking?
How’d you get so caught?
How’d you get so tangled up?”
Evan expressed his own pandemic fatigue, referring to these as weird times. Reinforcing his words from earlier in the evening — “today’s the best day, tomorrow’s the second-best day” — he reminded that things are in fact starting to get better.
“It sucked. There’s no intelligent way to say it. A lot of people are coming out of this with sensitivity and pain,” he said. Hollers from the crowd overlapping some of his words. “We need to be reminded about what community looks like and feels like. … This is just a reminder.”
Watch Pinegrove’s full-length movie “Amperland, NY” released in early 2021 along with an accompanying soundtrack on YouTube:
After an incredible take on “Endless” from Marigold, highlighted by Skinner’s work on the keyboard, Evan said they’d be staying put to move right into their encore, which turned out to include a classic version of “Old Friends,” a quintessential tune that speaks to Hall’s incredible ability to craft mind-bending, gorgeous songs. This track, which as an acoustic solo sounds remarkable and is ear-pleasing, melded his fickle, sincere outpouring with an ascension of notes that like other Pinegrove songs stuttered and changed speeds, all while Hall lets his guard down to sing some of the best lyrics of the night:
“My steps keep splitting my grief
Through these solipsistic moods
I should call my parents when I think of them
Should tell my friends when I love them …
Maybe I should have gone out a bit more
And you guys are still in town
I got too caught up in my own shit
It’s how every outcome is such a comedown
I knew it when I saw it
Oh, I did just what I wanted
So I go through with this
I knew happiness when I saw it
I saw it”
Closing the night with “Aphasia,” which became full throng sing along, people locked in embrace, swaying, some almost entranced, Pinegrove had clearly made its case. Despite any mistakes its leader made, this is a band genuinely adored by its fans and one that ardently strives to provide something of spiritual value and purpose through its music.
Here are images of Pinegrove, as well as opening act Blue Ranger, performing at Rams Head Live in Baltimore on October 19, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.