Indie Rockers "Whitney" and the Birth of "Country Soul"

When Whitney first graced the stage of The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids, Michigan last May, they were merely an opening act. Yet, their eclectic sound of six musicians (including a trumpeter) captivated the audience. Not one member of the audience knew their lyrics, but the room swayed to the beat of the drums. By the end of their brief set, a crowd of hundreds stood cheering for the last echoes of trumpet.

Five months later, on October 16th, Whitney returned to the stage of The Pyramid Scheme with their very own headline show. Grand Rapids had been waiting: a line of fans stretched down the street, and you can bet they knew the words this time. Their “Whitney” tees said so.

Before long, the line outside had packed the space inside, and just like that, the show was. After an opening act by Sam Evian, Whitney took the stage. This return trip to Grand Rapids was a little different: custom drum kit, new songs, and loud, enthusiastic cheers from an audience eager to see Whitney back. Their first song, “Dave’s Song,” started their gig off slowly, introducing lead singer and drummer Julien Ehrlich’s old school vocals with Max Kakacek’s soulful guitar. According to critics, Whitney’s sound is best defined as “indie folk.” The band heartily disagrees - they prefer the term “country soul,” a concept perfectly illustrated by this song. As the trumpet joined in at the chorus, a wave of cheers rose from the audience. After a short vacation from Grand Rapids, the signature sound of Will Miler’s horn is more than welcome back.

From the beginning of the show, it was obvious that the band shares a deeper connection that makes them so wonderful to watch. Whitney was originally conceived by musicians Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich to provide them a truly free approach to music – no surprise, then, the band simply enjoys being on stage while playing music they care about. Whitney’s love of music and strong friendship make the band a joy to watch on stage, but it’s their extension of that love to the audience that makes their shows so special.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the show came from the band’s embrace of an audience member’s Tweet. “Somebody Tweeted at us that if we played ‘Red Moon’ for ten minutes, they would buy ten albums,” Julien announced, running his hands through his hair. The Tweeter was right in the front row, and agreed to keep his promise. So, inviting Sam Evian and his band onstage, Whitney proceeded to play “Red Moon,” a jazzy, instrumental song, for ten straight minutes. To last the entire time, the band varied the tempo, sliding each member in and out of solos while the crowd cheered them on.

Whitney is joined onstage by Sam Evian to play "Red Moon."

Whitney is joined onstage by Sam Evian to play "Red Moon."

A “decent cover of Bob Dylan” characterized the remainder of the show along with Whitney’s upbeat songs that often address philosophical topics with a glass-half-full mindset. The song “Follow,” for example, is, to quote Julien “about death, ‘cause we’re all going to die.” Hollers from the crowd only encouraged him more: “yeah, celebrate that!” he laughed in response. The happy tunes are consistent in the show and their album until the encore, when their single, “No Woman,” ends the show. “It’s about having a girlfriend, and then not having a girlfriend,” was the short, accurate description, and the audience responded with laughter—they have all been there at one point, and relate to the soulful and emotional song. Back in May, it was obvious that this song was going to be a signature of theirs, but by October, everyone knew the lyrics and all were singing along while Whitney gave their last ounces of energy to their iconic song.

It’s safe to say that Whitney’s ability to connect with their audience is a feature that sets them apart from the rest. They have a humble view of themselves, which is refreshing, lovable, and a characteristic that many bands lose during their rise to fame. Not only is their music suitable for any mood and unique from other artists in the genre, but they have a personality that is completely their own, and they openly share it with one another and the audience.

Whitney’s journey to fame is just beginning, and The Pyramid Scheme is lucky to have been a witness to their musical innovations. Influenced by both old-school rock and the relevant, soulful jazz of their hometown Chicago, Whitney’s sound seems destined for the big time.