OAKLAND — If tender bangers were a genre, Judah & the Lion would have that market cornered. Touring the band’s new album, Pep Talks, the Nashville trio known for blending Americana, rock and hip-hop on songs like mega-hit “Take it All Back” performed with three backing musicians and in front of a very sophisticated production setup, with the band’s own lighting rig, which did more than what most acts can dream up with a large LED screen. It was vaguely reminiscent of what Queen used to do in the ’80s. More on that in a bit.
Though frontman Judah Akers is a former baseball player, Pep Talks has less to do with sports and more about the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, his mom’s alcoholism and Akers’ attempts to live through the horrible change. Wearing various custom sports jerseys—he was in a baseball uniform, banjo player Nate Zuercher was in a hockey jersey and mandolin player Brian Macdonald was in a basketball jersey—Akers called the audience his family and seemed ecstatic for Judah & the Lion to be headlining their first show in Oakland.
The band blasted through “Pep Talk,” “Quarter-Life Crisis” and “Over My Head” before getting to the heartrending “I’m ok,” on which Akers tries to convince himself he’s doing all right before settling on the opposite. The song sped up into a spoken word soliloquy.
On “Conversations,” Akers’ voice and the electro-acoustic timbre of the song recalled Alt-J, while on the rap-sung “Reputation,” the bandleader split the room in two to chant along to the riff.
“These aren’t our songs tonight; they’re your songs,” Akers said at one point.
Judah & the Lion added in three covers, including a poppy take on Blink-182’s “All the Small Things,” which they performed with openers Flora Cash, and a folky, lonesome version of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Although by that point Akers had already done his best “Eyy-Oh!” impersonation of Freddie Mercury, it was not until the band’s “Queen Songs” that the other thematic element of the show popped out. On the song, Akers recounts memories of better times: singing Queen songs in the car with his mom. The song started with a two-minute guitar solo, with Akers also playing a kick drum, before Zuercher, Macdonald and the rest band joined him onstage. He finished with a snippet of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” before the song bled into the cathartic “human,” which on the album is partnered onto one track with “Queen Songs.”
Other highlights included “Don’t Mess With My Mama,” which ended with a drum line at the front of the stage; “JOYBOY,” which had all the makings of an EDM track until the mandolin and banjo duet started two-thirds of the way in; and the combination of a cover of Gary Glitter jock jam “Rock & Roll”—the hey song—and “Alright (frick it!).” The show ended with the band’s signature cheesy dancing—this time including a synchronized tearaway pants removal—and “Take It All Back.”
Akers assumed a batter’s stance and swung for the bleachers as the bass dropped.
Husband and wife duo Flora Cash opened the show with a 30-minute set of moody balladry. After starting with a new song, the electronic soul duo, backed by two musicians, played “You Love Me” in near darkness and started to pick up the tempo slightly with “Pharaoh” and “I Wasted You” before concluding with singles “They Own This Town” and “You’re Somebody Else,” which the duo dedicated to people struggling with their mental health.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.