For a scruffy little band, Whitney clean up awfully well. They also take up more surface area than you might imagine. What started as two friends from Chicago (Julian Ehrlich, 27 and Max Kakacek, 28) writing songs to spell time following the break up of their previous band (Smith Westerns) has since expanded to a encompass enough traveling players to field a baseball team — three guitarists, a bassist, a pianist, a cellist, a violinist, a trumpet player, and a drummer who just happens to possess an uncanny falsetto that could launch a thousand soft rock bands.
Their nine-piece ensemble casually strolls onstage at Boston’s Royale nightclub like young professionals showing up for their first day at the office — gentlemen in black suits and buttoned-up white-collared shirts, ladies in dark formal wear. They look ready to make names for themselves. This is ironic considering every time I play a song by Whitney in my car, the ill-begotten infotainment system mistakenly displays a picture of the late, great pop diva Mrs. Houston up on the touchscreen. Respect remains hard to come by, even via metadata. The room applauds anyway.
Last time I saw Whitney perform in 2017, they looked like shit and sounded fantastic. Ehrlich more than once remarked to a festival crowd that he was ready to vomit from a hangover. Tonight, they sip from what appears to be coffee cups and Poland Spring bottles, looking remarkably refreshed. I mention the story to the woman manning the band’s merch table, and she remembers; we both agree Whitney has come a long way. They open with “Polly,” coyly lamenting: “If only we were young.” They still sound fantastic.
Positioned centerstage behind his kit, Ehrlich quickly identifies as a front man with aces up his sleeve — he sings, drums, is impeccably dressed, shyly handsome and sensitive for good measure. “This is for any one who’s ever lost a family member. That’s a lot of us.” he confides before shuffling into “Follow,” a tender, uplifting eulogy for his late grandfather. The crowd sways to the brass and strings, echoing the unfurling vowels of Ehrlich’s endearing promise: “And I’ll follow/ You.”
Whitney’s 2016 debut Light on the Lake sounded delightfully out of place among indie rock circles — a dulcet half hour of jangly, roll-your-windows-down folk rock for high stress times. In the three years hence, the album has aged like fine Laurel Canyon wine. It’s ten songs still transport me back forty years to the childhood backseat of my parents’ rusty, old Chevy Monte Carlo where the FM radio dial landed somewhere between America’s “Sister Goldenhair” and Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.”
This year’s follow up Forever Turned Around feels even more laconic (if such a thing were possible), projecting the same warm, ineffable nostalgia as if its songs had existed for decades. There are no upbeat rockers like “No Matter Where We Go” or sing-along anthems like “Golden Days” (both of which sound spectacular this evening), but maybe that’s the point. As sophomore albums go, Forever Turned Around dutifully extends the mellow gold of its predecessor, and tonight Whitney weave the two records into a country-soul tapestry of pastoral peaks and Indica-tinged lulls.
On “Valleys (My Love),” Ehrlich yearns for permanence (“I never want to fade away/ Want to turn as the seasons change”) over a timeless chord progression that mirrors his intention. His unearthly voice soars, a wail that escapes the boundaries of gender and literally feels like another instrument. They meander across genres, covering Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” (a country hit popularized by Glen Campbell in the late 70’s) with reverence and aplomb. Smiles materialize, toes tap and craniums nod. Amidst the overpriced drinks and Royale’s tacky nightclub decor, the tune’s veracity feels like a breath of fresh air. On “Woman,” Ehrlich delivers a tremulous ode to life on the road. “I left drinking on the city train” he recalls achingly “I’ve been sleeping alone.” It’s a rush to hear hundreds sing along to his every introverted word.
Whitney reproduce their crisp studio sound on stage due in large part to the band’s superb musical chops. Ehrlich’s synchronized singing and percussion (no small feat) is both understated and captivating. During instrumental “Rhododendron,” his band mates take turns pirouetting around his backbeat in tasteful improvisational solos —Kakacek on guitar, Malcolm Brown on keys, and Will Miller on trumpet. They cross T’s and dot I’s with the flair and precision of wily veterans. Whitney don’t settle for mimicry; they do all the little things right.
With a charismatic front man and jazz outfit’s attention to detail, Whitney’s simple, mellow aura is evocative of a gentler time and place in American music — specifically someplace in California, circa 1977. They sound like the love child of Don Henley and Donald Fagen. It’s a gestalt that’s about as unpopular as you might find in 2019, but Whitney breathe it in and out without a whiff of irony. So does everyone else. All the hipster phenotypes are out in force tonight, sporting wool cardigans, horn rimmed glasses, corduroy overalls, and oh so many mustaches. The amount of PBR being consumed is frightening. But what’s striking is how intensely an audience of mostly twenty-somethings connects with a band that seems to inhabit an era they have never personally known.
That’s the beauty of Whitney; they sound of another time but belong distinctly to this one. They’re kids with old souls, pensive but hopeful, who are quite accomplished at their chosen profession (thank you very much)— probably like a lot of folks in the audience tonight. Whitney play with an easy-rolling sincerity and sing about the kind of existential worries that resonate with post-college grads as naturally as grousing dads twice their age. “Will life get ahead of me?” Ehrlich ponders. It’s a question we never really stop asking.
Nightcap “Valleys (My Love)” sounds pleasant enough on Forever Turned Around, but as concert closer, it’s near miraculous. The orchestral swell and cascading chorus make an entire room wave their hands in the air in swooning unison. There’s a palpable feel-good vibe in the air, an appreciation for finer things done well without extravagance, and a very real possibility that we just might all hug it out tonight. Ehrlich lets the crowd in on a little, fake-it-til-you-make-it secret: “This is only the fourth time we’ve worn these suits.” It’s met with the knowing smirks of peers who can easily relate, preferring substance over appearance. The threads, like Whitney, feel comfortable, natural, and effortlessly lived in.