For those of us who’ve seen our favorite bands multiple times (followers of the Grateful Dead and Phish come to mind), we’ve learned how to spot patterns and/or variations in the live performances of the songs, onstage banter, and the unspoken conversation between artist and audience. Although I have yet to follow River Whyless on tour, I have diligently observed their career for close to a decade and have seen the band perform nearly twenty times. This past Monday, River Whyless appeared at Union Stage showcasing songs from their new album, Monoflora, and I was just as captivated as the first time I saw them perform in 2013.
Monoflora is River Whyless’s fourth full-length album, and one that breaks new musical ground for the group. To begin with, the recording process was unlike any previously undertaken by the band. In August 2019, they retreated to the woods outside Asheville, North Carolina in a deliberate attempt (sans producer) to make a record that captured the creative process. River Whyless tells the story: “…would start the tape and let it roll until they could let their conscious minds forget they were recording [and] simply create. Arrangements were fleshed out and captured on the spot [and] often recorded with the singers in a room together with a guitar, writing harmonies and lyrics as they went.” Though the album was largely completed by early 2020, the pandemic, in addition to shutting down touring and music venues, also played havoc with recording and release schedules. The band made the decision to hold the album back until some future date.
Steam Monoflora by River Whyless on Spotify:
The date finally arrived on April 8, and the resulting album is something transformative, unique, and unlike any of the band’s previous efforts: A Stone, a Leaf, an Unfound Door (2012), River Whyless (EP, 2015), We All the Light (2016), Kindness, A Rebel (2018). The songs still rely on the individual members’ unique talents (all are multi-instrumentalists), perfectly blended three-part harmonies, and an uncanny instinct for subtly incorporating unique influences from diverse genres (Eastern, Americana, folk/rock, electronica, to name but a few).
There is a sweetness to the songs from Monoflora. The closest definition of the term I could find was “honey from the nectar of a single source flower.” This new music clearly springs from a blossoming of creativity. I got the feeling that finally playing these songs in front of people represented an opportunity to recreate that freeform recording process in a spontaneous live setting. Halli Anderson (vocals, violin, balalaika, guitar, percussion), Ryan O’Keefe (vocals, guitar, bass), Daniel Shearin (vocals, guitars, bass, keys) and Alex McWalters (drums, percussion) move easily among instruments between, and even during, songs. Although highly accessible with melodies that remain in your ear, they don’t conform to an easily identifiable structure. The songs move with melodies and countermelodies, complex rhythmic patterns (McWalters is easily one of the finest percussionists I’ve ever heard), and melodic structures that ramble in unanticipated but highly pleasing directions. I defy you to find anyone who’s listened to a River Whyless song and reacted with a “meh.”
Opening with a trio of older songs from We All the Light and Kindness, A Rebel, one got the sense that the band hadn’t quite settled into their live groove yet (not touring for nearly three years can do that), the songs played a bit faster than I’d remembered them. Perhaps the band was anxious to get to the new material. “Fast Like a Match,” with its lovely refrain, “slowwwwwwwww…down” marked the first new song and quickly reset the tempo for the rest of the evening.
Watch the official music video for “Fast Like a Match” by River Whyless on YouTube:
“Maple Sap,” O’Keefe’s ballad recalling his days in Maine tapping maple syrup was amusingly introduced detailing his futile efforts at attempting the same in the North Carolina mountains. “Promise Rings,” another tune from the new album contrasts a bouncy melody with lyrics about lost love and disillusionment: “On your soapbox in your Sunday school, broke my heart, but it ain’t nothing new. Promise rings, Promise rings, baby, your promise rings untrue and undying.”
“Life Crisis” was a bit of a throwback to 2015’s eponymous EP. But followed by the new tune, “Michigan Cherry” the connection with the band’s earlier days was unmistakable, recalling the the “Cedar Dream” trilogy from their 2012 debut. The highlight of the evening was the poignant Motel 6, its new arrangement incorporating a middle section pause and extended outro that gave the band members’ an opportunity to stretch out with nice bit of improv. The next song, “Heaven and Light” is a deceptively complex piece after which somebody remarked, “That was fun!” to which Halli replied, “And hard.” That led Daniel to paraphrase JFK’s famous quote: “We do these things because they are hard!” Indeed, easy tunes these are not.
All Day All Night
Born in the Right Country
Fast Like a Match
Heaven and Light
All of My Friends
The Feeling of Freedom
Van Dyke Brown
Mama Take Your Time
Airline to Heaven (Wilco cover)
River Whyless set list April 11, 2022
By the time, we got to the middle section of the show, clearly the band had found its musical footing, performing sublime versions of “Oil Skin” (with its vaguely East Asian feel courtesy Halli’s unique violin phrasings), “All of My Friends” (a foray into folk electronica, if there is such a thing), and “The Pool” (a gorgeous song about struggle and loss).
The encore was unplanned. As three quarters of the band filed back onstage and then joined the crowd on the floor, we could hear them asking one another, “So, what should we play?” Settling on a song they “hadn’t performed in years,” as Halli said, they launched into an unplugged acoustic performance of Wilco’s “Airline to Heaven.” Yes, it was ragged. Yes, they missed vocal cues. Yes, they giggled throughout the song. And yes, it could not have been more charming. And perfect.
River Whyless is not the same group of individuals who produced the folksy, pastoral, A Stone, A Leaf, an Unfound Door ten years ago. Age teaches hard lessons but also brings great joys. The songs today reflect that evolution, that maturation, with lyrics that reveal the ambiguities and hard realities of life; their songwriting is more complex, the musical risks more challenging but the payoffs undeniably more satisfying. Perhaps the lyrics of “Fast Like a Match” express that feeling more succinctly than I ever could:
“The life that brings me joy
To roam across the country
With all my foolish boys
The crowd’s got a hold on me
I want to stay here at my best
Clinging to the dim light
Until there’s no light left”
For so many fans (myself included, of course), accompanying River Whyless on that musical roaming is a joy and a privilege.
River Whyless continues on tour throughout April and May with a west coast leg planned for August. Find more info on their website!
Here are some photos of River Whyless at Union Stage on April 11, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Mark Caicedo.